There seems to be a shift in thinking across the United States when it comes to nutrition. Although we are still a country plagued by obesity, it does appear that we are slowly, but surely becoming more cognizant of what we are putting not only in our own bodies, but also in the bodies of our children. Perhaps that increase in awareness is part of the reason for the continued rise in breastfeeding.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a 2013 report card showing that 77 percent of new mothers are choosing breast over bottle. That number marks a 6 percent increase over the past decade. Furthermore, the study shows that nearly half of the number of mothers who breastfeed continue to do so for the entire six-month minimum recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Breast feeding declined a bit in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but I’ve really seen it pick back up in the past five years,” says Tina Castellanos, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant with The MILC Group.
She credits the resurgence with the recent call to action from the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, which released a report on how breastfeeding impacts the United States, causing health organizations to sit up and take notice. She is also quick to acknowledge the positive impact social media has in terms of disseminating information.
“Young mothers are great at spreading information and forming supportive communities via social media,” Castellanos says. “I think that is also a reason that the breastfeeding movement is growing again.”
It is indisputable that the health benefits of breastfeeding are numerous. According to www.womenshealth.gov, breastfeeding lowers the risk of a myriad of diseases and conditions including asthma, childhood leukemia, childhood obesity, ear infections, SIDS, and Type 2 diabetes. The benefits extend to mom too, lowering her risk of heart disease, and ovarian and breast cancers.
If the health benefits aren’t enough, there are other compelling reasons to breastfeed. Among them are cost effectiveness and the fact that it’s just more convenient – especially at 3 a.m.
“I joke that I did it out of laziness,” says mother of two Kate Jaceldo, who gave birth to her first child at the age of 19. “No middle of the night bottles to make.”
With so many positive reasons for breastfeeding, you might wonder why anyone would choose NOT to do it. Lack of education on the topic is one reason, especially within certain minority groups.
“The African American culture has the lowest breastfeeding rates,” says Castellanos.
Again, that’s where social media is having an impact. Facebook pages including “Mocha Moms” and “Black Women Do Breastfeed” offer African-American women a forum to learn and ask questions from experts and each other.
“I think we are struggling with an entire generation of women whose mothers and grandmothers did not breastfeed,” muses Castellanos. “That results in a lack of community to help new mothers.”
The Kellogg’s corporation is working to address the issue through First Food Forum and Latino Best Start, both initiatives designed to raise the breastfeeding rates within the African American and Latino communities. On a local level, MILC wrote a breastfeeding tool kit for the Latino Best Start initiative that will be implemented in early Head Start programs on both the south and southeast sides of San Antonio.
Even armed with knowledge, there are still many mothers who choose not to breastfeed for other reasons. Certain medications, chemotherapy treatments, or simply lifestyle can all factor into the decision whether to breastfeed. Working mothers in particular can have a difficult time, especially if there is extensive travel involved or a lack of postnatal support from the employer.
San Antonio College professor, and mother of two, Gretchen Duggan had to wedge a chair behind the door of the office she shared with 15 other colleagues in order to use her breast pump in private when her daughter was born eight years ago.
“I was allowed to use the Special Ed testing office to pump, but only on my conference period, which limited my ability to plan and prepare for class with my colleagues,” she recalls.
Fortunately, in today’s world, several local businesses including Geekdom and Grande Communications, offer accommodations for breastfeeding mothers that range from private lounges with refrigeration, to more frequent or longer break times. Insurance giant USAA even offers hospital grade breast pumps to its nursing mothers.
“We have 1,200 births across our system annually,” says Dr. Peter Wald of USAA. “It is very important to us that our employees return to work to support our members, so we have been offering these services to our breastfeeding mothers for several years.”
While education and work accommodations might make breastfeeding easier in theory, how about when it’s 3 a.m., your baby is crying, you are crying, your nipples are cracked and bleeding, and nothing is working? It might be time for outside help in the form of a lactation consultant.
According to Castellanos, you’d be surprised at the number of women who are scared to call a lactation consultant for fear of being judged.
“A lactation consultant is just another tool in your tool belt,” Castellanos says, adding that the image of the “Breast Nazi” is a common misconception.
“I don’t have a horse in this race,” she assures. “I don’t go home at night and worry about whether you are breastfeeding. I just want to know your goal and help you achieve it, whether that’s breastfeeding for three months, six months, or working with supplementation,” Castellanos says.
The truth is, like all things relating to a person’s body, the choice of whether to breastfeed is a highly personal one and should not come under scrutiny.
“I wanted to be the type of mother that found it natural and easy, but I wasn’t,” says mother of two Katherine Eversberg, explaining that she was uncomfortable nursing in public, and constantly worried about diet, milk storage and other related issues. “I was driving myself and others, crazy with all of my worrying,” she says.
According to Castellanos, it’s always better to focus on being a happy mom and loving your baby instead of stressing out over breastfeeding. And, it is important to remember that there is no correlation between breastfeeding and being a great parent.
“Choosing not to breastfeed does not make you a bad mother,” adds Castellanos emphatically. “It’s time for women to start supporting one another and stop the judging.”
Bonny Osterhage is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of two boys.