More moms trying to breast-feed babies, study says

But barriers still exist for women to continue

  • Carrie Tyler of Nottingham cuddles 3 day-old daughter, Jayden, in the maternity ward of GBMC, in preparation for breastfeeding.
Carrie Tyler of Nottingham cuddles 3 day-old daughter, Jayden,… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
September 29, 2010|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

It took a day or so of false starts, but newborn Jayden eventually got the hang of it. To the surprise of many new mothers, breast-feeding doesn't come easily to most newborns.

"I had a C-section early Saturday and no sleep all day, so it was a challenge," said Jayden's mother, Carrie Tyler of Nottingham, about her first attempts to breast-feed in her room at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. "But I was pretty determined."

Her efforts put her among the 73 percent of Maryland mothers and 75 percent of new moms nationwide who initiate breast-feeding, according to a new report card from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that measures how many women follow doctor recommendations.

And while the national number met goals set by federal health officials, many new moms aren't as resolute about continuing as Tyler, who says she intends to breast-feed for a year. The rates of breast-feeding at 6 months and a year and rates of exclusive breast-feeding at 3 and 6 months remained stagnant and low, the report card said.

Many in the field agree that bottle-fed babies are not going to be unhealthy, but they point to the prevailing wisdom on optimal nutrition. The CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, among others, recommend that breast milk be fed exclusively to infants for the first 6 months and remain the main source of nutrients the first year.

The CDC says women appear to be interested and knowledgeable about the benefits because so many new mothers start out breast-feeding. Some states even far exceeded the government goals, such as Utah, where almost 90 percent initiated breast-feeding. Mississippi had the lowest number at 52.5 percent.

But there are barriers, including lack of support for new mothers — in obstetricians' offices, in the hospitals where they give birth and in their offices when they return to work, according to Kim Knight, a lactation consultant and the president of the Maryland Breastfeeding Coalition, which offers support to new mothers.

Knight said no hospital in the state sends a consultant to speak with every new mother who delivers, and none sends someone to every new mother's home to check on her progress. Further, many businesses do not have facilities for women to pump breast milk during the workday. There is a requirement for such space included in the federal health care reform law, though there is no timeline and no mechanism for enforcement.

"We think women are getting the message about the benefits of breast-feeding," Knight said. "But a lot more has to be done to support moms who initiate breast-feeding."

The coalition is working with businesses with 50 or more employees to comply with the new law. It has small federal grants of $300 to hand out to those that need help with their space — which Knight said needs to be nothing more than a room with a chair, a table for a pump and an electrical outlet, though some have chosen to add refrigerators, sinks and even pumps, she said.

She cited Under Armour, Northrop Grumman and Aetna as businesses in the state that now offer space for their breast-feeding workers. GBMC, Anne Arundel Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Hospital also were recently given the "Breastfeeding-Friendly Workplace Award" from state health officials. Knight says in return, the businesses can expect lower absenteeism, more productivity and lower health care costs because women who breast-feed tend to have healthier babies.

Next, the coalition is going to be working with teachers' unions to determine ways the state's teachers can comfortably pump at work.

The group is also trying to encourage doctors' offices to refer women to outside resources if they don't have time to coach new mothers having trouble breast-feeding.

"It's a learning curve," she said about the mother's ability to breast-feed. "If the answer at the doctor's is that there is trouble, there should be more outreach."

But she said there would be a payoff. An April report in the journal Pediatrics by two Boston researchers found the nation could save $13 billion annually on pediatric diseases and prevent 911 infant deaths if 90 percent of babies were exclusively breast-fed for the first 6 months.

The CDC says that's because breast milk is easily digestible and contains antibodies that can protect infants from bacterial and viral infections. And those who are breast-fed as infants are less likely to become overweight or obese as they grow.

Marla Newmark, GBMC's lactation coordinator for 21 years, said only in the past 40 years or so have the benefits become widely known and embraced. But she said each generation of mothers still learns that getting the hang of breast-feeding isn't always easy. (Keep at it and get help, she says.) Sometimes there isn't a lot of milk. (She recommends frequent pumping to encourage flow.)

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