It’s disappointing that in 2013 we still regularly read stories about mothers being shamed for breastfeeding in public. Despite the fact that breastfeeding is a natural, age-old practice that has nourished babies for millennia, it remains a source of much debate. As an ob-gyn, I don’t see breastfeeding as controversial. In fact, I think it’s as close as we get to a “win-win.” The key point is to support women in their choice, whether their decision is to breastfeed or not, and to recognize that for some women breastfeeding can be very difficult. This is why as ob-gyns, we can partner with others to support women’s needs and desires and advocate for workplace accommodations that help promote breastfeeding on the job.
The benefits to mother and baby are clear. Breast milk is truly nature’s perfect baby food—it provides infants with complete nutrition, helps build strong digestive and immune systems, and protects against childhood illness such as respiratory infection and cancer. Breastfeeding also helps women bond with their newborns, contributes to faster postpartum weight loss, and decreases a mother’s risk of developing breast or ovarian cancers in the future.
Fortunately, the majority of women will be able to successfully breastfeed. ACOG recommends exclusive breastfeeding—without supplementing with formula—until infants are 6 months old. National efforts to increase breastfeeding rates are helping. Today, 75% of women initiate breastfeeding. However, research has shown that many women stop breastfeeding earlier than intended. Only 14% of women exclusively breastfeed at 6 months, well short of the 60% goal set by the US Public Health Service for Healthy People 2020.
To increase the duration of breastfeeding, it will take a village. Ob-gyns, pediatricians, family members, child care providers, workplaces, and communities all play a role. As ob-gyns, we have many opportunities to support our patients’ desire to breastfeed. We can counsel women during pregnancy about the benefits of breastfeeding, and we can put plans in place to ensure immediate and smooth initiation after delivery. We should be available to help our patients who experience physical problems by quickly evaluating and treating breast issues (such as mastitis) and referring them to lactation specialists or breastfeeding experts who can assess logistical problems. We must also remember that the challenges don’t end at the hospital and serve as vocal advocates of creating breastfeeding-friendly hospitals, communities, and workplaces—our own offices included.
The bottom line: Breastfeeding is healthy for mom and baby. While we should always be compassionate and nonjudgmental to our patients that can’t or choose not to do it, we should continue to support and encourage the practice in any way we can.
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