The subject of breastfeeding is often riddled with controversy. A recent TIME magazine cover sparked debate with its photo of a 26-year-old mom breastfeeding her 3-year-old son while he stands on a step stool in front of her. Interestingly, the article wasn’t specifically about breastfeeding, but the photo did its job well…people bought magazines, and people were talking, including me. I was curious about how local moms felt about breastfeeding, and I learned a lot from the local moms who were gracious enough to share their breastfeeding experiences with me.
The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, with continued breastfeeding and appropriate complementary foods up to the age of 2. Why? Here are some benefits of breastfeeding:
- It has been shown to protect babies from illness and reduce the risk of developing asthma, obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia and atopic dermatitis in infancy.
- It also reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
- It is easier for babies to digest, so breastfed babies suffer from fewer gastrointestinal symptoms than their formula-fed counterparts.
- It contains exactly the right amount of fat, sugar, water and protein, and is rich in nutrients and antibodies that formula companies simply can’t match—and, best of all?
- It releases oxytocin, a hormone that helps milk flow and has a calming effect on the mother.
None of this information is new, and yet in Oklahoma, only about 67 percent of new mothers even attempt to breastfeed, which is on the lower end of the national state-by-state breakdown published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Only about 36 percent of Oklahoma moms are still breastfeeding their babies at 6 months of age. Despite a breastfeeding information media campaign by the State Department of Health, Oklahoma consistently remains below the national average in nursing rates. Parenting is all about choices, and every parent is entitled to the right to choose how to feed their child. What leads to these choices varies from one mom to the next.
Shana works full-time, and has a daughter who just turned 1. “I breastfed my daughter for three months, motivated by the fact that it was nutritionally the perfect food, it was free and it allowed me more time to bond,” she says. “But it was hard to find enough time to pump at work. Because I was gone all day, it seemed like she was breastfeeding constantly from the time I got home until she went to bed. She was taking very little at her daytime feedings, and seemed to be saving it all up for when I got home.”
Shana also notes that, “I think it would be fabulous if the United States had paid mandatory maternity leave. I was given six weeks at 70 percent pay, and it was just not enough time to establish breastfeeding the way I had hoped.”
Amy is also a working mother, but found it less challenging after having eight weeks of time off. “I breastfed my daughter for nine months and I pumped for 13. We began supplementing her diet with cereal and baby food at about 5½ months, because our pediatrician told us that exclusively breastfed infants have a decrease in Vitamin D levels around that time,” she says. “She began to take less milk at about 9 months, and my supply decreased. I think weaning then led to her having a little more independence. We used organic, Omega-3 fortified whole milk to wean. Teaching your child to find nutrients in their diets and not rely on breast milk or Pedia-sure types of drinks sets them up to make better independent choices later.”
Lindsay is a stay-at-home mom to a 9-month-old son, though she worked briefly after her maternity leave before deciding to stay at home. She wasn’t able to breastfeed due to a medical condition. While she feels it is a mother’s choice how she feeds her baby, when speaking of the TIME magazine cover depicting a mom who practices extended nursing, she notes “There is a hippie mom movement that I think could be beneficial to our society. At a time when childhood obesity is at an all-time high and we are poisoning our children and ourselves with overly processed food, is breastfeeding for an extended period of time REALLY an issue?”
Marta is a stay-at-home mom of a 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old old son. “I made the decision to breastfeed before my first child was born. I knew my mother had breastfed me and she told me about all the wonderful benefits breastfeeding would bring me and my child,” Marta explains. “I soon discovered that I really enjoyed the time that was just for me and my baby. Some of my most precious memories happened when we were sharing a quiet moment to nurse.” Both the health benefits and the bonding it provided proved important to Marta. “I never set out to break any records or to breastfeed for a certain length of time, but I ended up breastfeeding both my kids until they were around 2½ years. For us it just worked. Of course, they were eating table food by age 1, so the actual feeding part took more of a back seat to the other aspects that don’t get a lot of mention from doctors—the soothing, bonding and just being together in a quiet moment.”
My Own Story
As for me, I am a working mother of two girls also. My first child, whom I had when I was only 23 and perhaps not as well-equipped to handle—well, anything—I nursed for about four months, but she was supplemented with some formula. She has always been pretty healthy, but still, I wish I had nursed her longer than I did.
My second child was nursed almost exclusively for six months, and I continued until a few weeks before her first birthday. I think we used exactly one can of formula in her first six months. She has always been in relatively good health, but not quite to the extent of her sister. She was slightly more prone to ear and respiratory infections, and was diagnosed with asthma at age five. With both children, I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight by my six-week checkup.
The bottom line seems to be that moms are human, and while you can’t argue that in virtually every case, breast is best, as long as a mom is DOING her best and her child is healthy and thriving, there’s not much more you can ask for. Nothing is foolproof, and there’s no way to entirely predict any child’s future health, but the benefits of breastfeeding are substantial and should be given consideration, especially given the nation’s overall declining health.
To learn more about breastfeeding, contact The La Leche League (www.llli.org) or your healthcare provider. Another helpful source is the state’s website about breastfeeding, www.ok.gov/strongandhealthy/Eat_Better/Breastfeeding.
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer from Edmond and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions.