The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, promotes breastfeeding as a practice that improves the health and well-being of mothers and infants.
The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that until six months of age, an infant should only be fed breast milk. In 2011, 79% of mothers started breastfeeding their child at birth, but only 18.8% of mothers followed the recommendation and still exclusively breastfed their child at six months old. The Department of Health and Human Services set goals in their Healthy People 2020 report to have 81.9% of mothers breastfeeding their children at birth, and 60.6% still breastfeeding at six months.
Breast milk has many health benefits for infants because it contains nutrients and antibodies that support the development of infants’ immune and digestive systems. Research has shown that the antibodies present in breast milk help protect children against common childhood infections, as well as decrease their chance of developing allergies and type 1 diabetes. Additionally, breast milk naturally contains the appropriate amount of fat, sugar, water and protein that infants need during their first few months of life. There may also be a connection between breastfeeding and a decreased chance of being overweight or obese, but this link is still being researched. The only nutrient infants may benefit from that is not contained in breast milk is vitamin D, so doctors may suggest mothers take special vitamin D tablets while breastfeeding. Breastfeeding not only benefits children, as mothers who breastfeed have a reduced risk of certain cancers, heart disease, arthritis, and postpartum depression.
A common alternative to breastfeeding is using baby formula. These formulas are typically made usually cow’s milk, which is more difficult for infants to digest than breastmilk. Although using baby formula does not pose a negative risk to an infant’s health, it does not provide all of the health benefits of breast milk. It is also important to consider the fact that formula feeding can be very expensive whereas breast milk is free!
Some women find breastfeeding uncomfortable or difficult for a variety of reasons. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding lists some common barriers to breastfeeding:
- Lack of knowledge on how and why mothers should breastfeed
- Employed mothers find it difficult to breastfeed after they’ve returned to work
- Poor family and social support of breastfeeding
- Embarrassment or social norms that sexualize breasts
For other common breastfeeding challenges and resources on how to overcome them, visit the womenshealth.gov Breastfeeding page.
Healthy People 2020 set a goal to increase the number of infants born in hospitals that provide resources for breastfeeding mothers and their infants. This will increase knowledge on how and why mothers should breastfeed. Also, to overcome the barrier of breastfeeding after returning to work, Healthy People 2020 aims to increase the amount of on-site support for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace.
Finally, the CDC is campaigning to increase breastfeeding support in many different settings. Read the CDC’s 2013 Guide to Strategies to Support Breastfeeding Mothers and Babies for resources about breastfeeding support in by peers, professionals, and in the workplace, and for further breastfeeding education and information.