Each year in the United States, over 23,000 infants die before their first birthday. As a nation, we currently have a higher infant mortality rate than 25 of the world’s wealthiest 29 countries. The deaths of so many babies is a national tragedy and should be a national scandal—but it isn’t.
Many of these infant deaths—particularly those that occur after the newborn period—are preventable. And one of the most powerful ways we can prevent this horrible loss of young life is to ensure that mothers are able to breastfeed successfully and for as long as possible.
This is because breastfeeding saves lives. It helps protect babies from life-threatening infections and illnesses as well as conditions such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)—one of the leading causes of infant mortality in the U.S. In fact, not breastfeeding carries a huge price tag, measured in the health and lives of mothers and babies.
Last year, in a groundbreaking study in the world-renowned medical journal The Lancet, researchers estimated that globally over 800,000 lives of children could be saved annually through better breastfeeding practices. It also estimate that breastfeeding could save 20,000 women each year from dying from breast cancer. Here in the U.S., a recent study notes that for every 597 women who optimally breastfeed, one maternal or infant death is prevented. Researchers have also found a strong correlation between decreased infant mortality from SIDS, lower respiratory tract infections (LRTI), and necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and increased rates of breastfeeding. Moreover, given that the majority of infant deaths in the U.S. are linked to preterm birth, ensuring these vulnerable premature newborns have access to breast milk can help save lives because of its unrivaled power to fuel growth and brain development. Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all preterm infants receive pasteurized human donor milk rather than infant formula as the preferred alternative if a mother’s breast milk is not available.
But some of the recent stories in the news and articles spreading through social media appear to paint quite the opposite picture about breastfeeding—that somehow breastfeeding is potentially dangerous to babies and that the “pressure to breastfeed” is the reason behind some babies getting sick or even, in a handful of cases, dying.
This is misleading and wrong. Many babies get sick and die in the U.S. before their first birthday because as a country we don’t do enough to support mothers to breastfeed and properly care for their children. The reality is that we are failing our nation’s babies because we are failing our nation’s mothers.
In our society, a mother must balance the desire to breastfeed with a lack of support and resources to do so. This has little to do with a woman’s own supply and everything to do with the context in which she lives. The pressure to breastfeed exists because society expects a mother to be her infant’s sole source of nutrition while also working, managing a household, caring for other family members, and finding time to get adequate rest and self-care. These demands are unfair and unreasonable.
Many women who want to breastfeed have to contend with numerous other barriers: unsupportive hospital practices and workplace policies including a lack of any kind of paid parental leave; an overall lack of qualified help when it comes to breastfeeding; and often, incorrect medical advice because many physicians and other health professionals are not trained in or have limited knowledge of lactation and infant feeding. America’s mothers are also constantly being bombarded by messages that inspire fear, uncertainty and doubt in their ability to breastfeed and cause them to question their choice. And mothers are surrounded by these messages—in hospitals and doctors’ offices, at stores, in their Facebook feeds and inboxes and even in their mommy support groups. All of this combined can leave a woman feeling that breastfeeding is perhaps not worth the trouble, or worse, that it is potentially dangerous.
As a society, we have to do more to give mothers the support they need to properly, confidently, and successfully breastfeed their babies. For starters, we at 1,000 Days, along with many other organizations, are pushing for a national paid family leave program to ensure that all mothers in the U.S. have access to time off to care for their babies. We’re also working alongside partners such as the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee to ensure that all health insurance plans in the U.S. cover lactation counseling and breastfeeding support and supplies. In addition, organizations like the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine are calling for better training for physicians, nurses and other health care professionals in lactation management and to know when it is appropriate and necessary to supplement newborns—ideally with donor breast milk or with formula if breast milk is not available.
Downplaying the importance of breastfeeding is doing infants and mothers a grave disservice, particularly when breastfeeding can help reduce the unacceptably high rate of infant mortality in our country. That’s why all of us can play an important role in calling out the manipulative and misleading marketing of infant formula as well as disinformation campaigns designed to stoke fears, undermine women’s confidence to breastfeed, play into a mother’s guilt, and blame-and-shame groups that work to promote breastfeeding.
We owe it mothers to do better. We also owe it to the thousands of babies who get sick or die each year in the U.S. because they do not have the opportunity to fully benefit from mother’s milk. This is the national scandal that we need to be attacking—rather than attacking breastfeeding and those who work to make breastfeeding more possible for more mothers and babies.
Lucy Martinez Sullivan is the Executive Director of 1,000 Days, the leading advocacy organization working in the U.S. and around the world to improve nutrition and ensure women and children have the healthiest first 1,000 days. Learn more at www.thousanddays.org and follow Lucy on Twitter @lucymsullivan.