07/31/2014 10:26 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

Disadvantaged From Birth: A Nation Lacking Breastfeeding Support Needs All The (Mobile) Help It Can Get

It's no longer a secret in America that breastfeeding a child exclusively for the first six to twelve months, if possible for mother and child, has many health benefits. Breastfeeding boosts infant immunity and may prevent conditions like asthma, diabetes and obesity. Studies suggest it may also help prevent heart disease and certain cancers in mothers.

Breastfeeding is considered a great equalizer worldwide, especially where nutrition is lacking and hunger is prevalent. UNICEF reports that breastfeeding could prevent an estimated one million childhood deaths under the age of five in the developing world -- but only 36 percent of these children under six months of age were breastfed exclusively in 2012.

In the U.S., where formula flows freely, only 16 percent of women who WANT to breastfeed achieve recommended goals. Formula marketing trumps what health institutions worldwide insist is best for infants. In an ongoing public health battle reminiscent of cigarette advertising in the 1990's, near 90 percent of U.S. hospitals still give out free formula bags, subtly undermining mothers' choices.

More recently, American mothers are suffering from high expectations but low support. Pressure to breastfeed is mounting from their doctors, yet everything from hospitals pushing formula to lack of first-person insight of their own moms (who did not breastfeed them) sends the message that it doesn't really matter if they give up. Lack of breastfeeding support leads mothers to stop early and deprives infants of a foundational health benefit.

Enter latchME and a new era of shared breastfeeding support responsibility

Dr. Jonathan Goldfinger is a pediatrician hoping to bolster support for breastfeeding in a place almost all mothers frequent: their mobile devices. He's developed a free, crowd-sourced app called latchME which connects breastfeeding moms with a host of nearby resources that make them feel supported and help them achieve their feeding goals. latchME maps businesses that welcome breastfeeding and professionals who address breastfeeding concerns. Moms can even share resources with each other.

Goldfinger bills himself as "a breastfeeding-friendly doctor" and backs this up developing breastfeeding services for underserved families throughout Los Angeles. An expert in breastfeeding programs, he loves advising healthcare organizations looking to better support mothers. He also runs a comprehensive breastfeeding clinic for AltaMed Health Services Corporation at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Goldfinger says his motivation for latchME extends beyond the myriad health benefits of breastfeeding. He espouses healthy equity, helping all families access quality care and make better-informed decisions about nutrition. latchME collects, shares and promotes breastfeeding-supportive resources in the hopes of inspiring everyone to collectively help mothers.

"Our support of breastfeeding is still evolving," Goldfinger says. "Unlike most developed countries, antiquated maternity leave policies in the U.S. force mothers to choose between their finances and their baby. American women are also shunned in public daily for doing the natural, healthy thing and breastfeeding their hungry infant."

Breastfeeding versus social media culture

Discrimination against breastfeeding extends beyond face-to-face interactions. When Goldfinger tried to advertise on Facebook with an image of a woman breastfeeding, no nipple shown, the ad was rejected. Yet photos of women in bikinis fill Facebook's News Feed. Advocates from the 4th Trimester Project to FB vs. Breastfeeding are taking social media to task for hypocritically censoring motherhood.

Consider the recent controversy over young, black mother Karlesha Thurman who breastfed her baby at her college graduation then uploaded the photo to Instagram. Not only was she berated by commenters who asked why she couldn't just "wait" or give the baby a bottle (two unfortunate, prevalent misconceptions in the U.S.) but complete strangers questioned her being a mother AT ALL at her young age. It's not surprising women don't feel comfortable breastfeeding in America!

What can be done? Support those who support breastfeeding

Continuing to push for better education and access to quality breastfeeding care is key. More people need to join big-time advocacy efforts like latchME. Supportive companies would gain loyal customers by sharing breastfeeding-friendly locations on latchME's rapidly growing network, which is free to join. By pushing for better supported mothers, latchME could improve breastfeeding numbers, decrease obesity and slow healthcare spending.

In its report Breastfeeding on the Worldwide Agenda, UNICEF calls for a unified voice for breastfeeding education and a "mobilized" initiative that is not just "policy-rich but implementation-poor." Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin echoes this in her Call to Action, urging everyone from hospitals to policy makers, businesses to communities, to step up and support breastfeeding. Goldfinger's mobile app is one such unified voice that brings people together for the singular goal of helping mothers.

Any form of advocacy that supports education and health is something I can support, as an educator and human. We talk a lot about nutrition greatly influencing the performance of our K-12 students - but nutrition starts long before Kindergarten. Giving our kids the healthiest start with breastfeeding is vital. Better, more easily accessed support for mothers will become the norm as we all support those who support breastfeeding to get there.

In honor of World Breastfeeding Week, latchME just released version 2.0 on iTunes. Please support the latchME movement by downloading the free app via the following link.