While ideology and profit politics predominate discussions and inhibit momentum toward any meaningful and sweepingly effective health care reform in America, there are fundamental and effective options on the table for changing the health culture and health of Americans. Toward the top of that list is the subject of this week's World Breastfeeding Awareness Week.
While Americans still get caught up in discussions of breastfeeding as if it were strictly a life style decision of the mother and a matter of ordering her priorities, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization are adamant that babies are born to be breastfed and that human milk should be the main source of calories for human babies for at least the first year of life, and the exclusive source for the first six months. WHO goes further than AAP and recommends two years or more of access to human milk. Research on brain development and many aspects of health from allergies, to infections and diabetes, supports these recommendations.
The morbidity and mortality related to infant formula use around the world has been documented well for the past 25 or 30 years. Not as well documented is the obliteration of critical natural resources such as wood and water used in preparing formula, or the interruption of natural child spacing caused when long term breastfeeding is not practiced.
In our country, where water sterilization is not so much of a problem, the health issues related to not breastfeeding, for both mother and infant, are myriad and well established by research, but are not as immediately dramatic as the death by diarrhea seen in so-called third world countries. Both formula and human milk have some bio contamination issues that are complex, but despite issues of contamination in human milk, the research is still hands down unanimous in favoring human milk as the optimal nourishment for human babies, and research even shows that human milk helps babies handle wider contamination issues more effectively. It's astonishing to me that the superiority of human milk over formula should have to be proven to anyone. Human milk is alive, complex, immunologically active and impossible to reproduce commercially.
In recent years, when the Department of Health and Human Services tried to launch a big campaign based on the dangers of not breastfeeding, their efforts were effectively squelched by the great political strength of the lobbyist for the formula/pharmaceutical companies.
America's lack of adequate paid parental leave and its attendant encouragement of a healthy length of time at breast for newborns and older infants is a major part of the scandal of American health culture. I think most Americans would be astonished to find out what goes on in many other "advanced" societies in terms of long term parental leave, often for both parents, leave time which allows the establishment of firm family ties and an biologically appropriate length of access to human milk and consistent, present parenting. Human milk is by my assessment one of the most important seriously threatened natural resources on the planet.
With all the vast amount of media attention to the issue of obesity and its attendant health problems today, far too little attention is given to the fact that it is well known that access to breast milk in infancy and beyond is protective against later childhood and later life obesity.
The slogan of the now defunct Department of Health and Human Services campaign to promote breastfeeding was "Babies are Born to Be Breastfed". This is a simple human and biological fact. It is not made any less true by ardent discussions of the rights of woman to decide to not breastfeed.
The bottom line is that every woman who has a baby wants a healthy baby with a healthy brain. The best way to get that is good prenatal nutrition in a low stress, non- toxic environment and then long term breastfeeding with adequate workplace support for suckling and pumping. Even a few months at the breast is much better than none at all.
It's World Breastfeeding Week, and this week the Breastfeeding Bill of Rights, which has been passed by both houses of the New York State legislature is on Governor Patterson's desk waiting to be signed. Urging the Governor to sign this bill without delay would be one fundamental way that everyone can support one aspect of real health care reform while the politics of insurance goes on front and center.
"Babies are Born to Be Breastfed"!!