What Percentage of Women Breastfeed – Houston, We Have a Problem

What could be more natural than breastfeeding? Nature has graciously provided us with an amazing and nutritious substance made by our own bodies that perfectly fits the needs of our babies. What more could we need?what-percentage-of-women-breastfeed

But if breast milk is so perfect, then why do so few women breastfeed? What is going on in our current society that has caused mothers to turn to artificial sources to feed their babies?

So, the burning question: What percentage of women breastfeed? Answer: Not enough.

The WHO (World Health Organization), US Surgeon General, AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) and AAFP (American Academy of Family Physicians) all agree that breastfeeding until the age of two is best for both baby and mother. 

Well, considering most American women never start breastfeeding, I think it’s safe to say we have a problem.

A Look at What Percentage of Women Breastfeed 

You might (or, maybe not) be surprised that the United States has one of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world. Even more, concerning is the percentage of women continuing after six months is dismal.

Here are a few countries and how they stack against each other:

what-percentage-of-women-beastfeed

Only 57% percent of US women even attempt to breastfeed…yikes. Way to go, Norway and Sweden. Overachievers.

But seriously, what is going on?

Another interesting statistic is that some of the countries with the best breastfeeding rates after their babies are six months are third world countries.

Look at ten countries with some of the highest breastfeeding rates who are still breastfeeding after six months:

  1. what-percentage-of-women-breastfeedRwanda – 90% 
  2. Sri Lanka – 76%
  3. Cambodia – 74%
  4. Nepal – 74%
  5. Malawi – 72%
  6. Peru – 71%
  7. Eritrea – 59%
  8. Uganda – 57%
  9. Egypt- 56%
  10. Iran – 56%

One observation that is easy to take away to explain these numbers is that mothers in poor countries do not have easy access to formula as mothers who are able to afford such.

In the United States, per the USDA, 57-68% of all infant formula sold in the US was purchased through WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). So even if a US mother does not have the money for formula, the resources are available to help her purchase it if she wishes.

what-percentage-of-women-breastfeedSo is the ease of accessibility and government funding of formula why only 57% of mothers even try to breastfeed? And why only 20% continue after six months?

Perhaps that is part of it. But Let’s look at the bigger picture.

If you talk to moms who have stopped breastfeeding before weaning age, you will hear thing like, “oh, I never produced enough,” “my baby never liked the breast,” “my baby wasn’t getting enough; he was always hungry,” etc, etc, etc.

The reality is that less than 2% of women actually have a true medical reason for not being able to breastfeed. All others have issues that with time, support and education can be overcome.

The long and short of this issues is that there is too little support for breastfeeding mothers. There is a lot of talk and interest in breastfeeding but very little to help moms who are struggling. To name a few issues:

  • Hospitals that push formula and not breastfeeding (confused why you get that little gift packet from them with formula coupons and samples when you leave the hospital? I know it confuses me)
  • Low milk supply that mothers have no idea how to fix or who to talk to to help fix it
  • Misinformation about a breastfed baby’s growth 
  • Not educated on breastfeeding basics and how to build and maintain a healthy milk supply
  • Too short maternity leaves (more on that in a minute)

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Support for Breastfeeding Mothers Starts in the Hospital

Basic support for breastfeeding mothers needs to start in the hospital. The WHO and UNICEF are promoting a 10-step baby-friendly hospital initiative, which outlines steps a hospital can take to support and promote breastfeeding for new moms. Sadly, only roughly 4% of hospitals are considered part of the baby-friendly initiative. But it is gaining awareness and there is hope for the future.

Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative 10-Steps as outlined by the WHO and UNICEF:

what-percentage-of-women-breastfeed

Helping mothers early and teaching them the basics before they go home is huge. Most women will not have access to lactation help once at home unless they can afford to pay for it.

I hope more hospitals get with the program!

Maternity Leave (or Lack Thereof) and Breastfeeding

Another huge issue in the United States is the lack of maternity leave. Only 13% of parents in the US have access to paid maternity leave. You read that right, 13%.

Yes, there is the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) that gives job protection up to 12 weeks and even if you are lucky enough to qualify, it’s just job protection. That means WITHOUT pay.  In fact, the United States is the only industrialized nation whose government does not support paid parental leave.

Honestly, who can go 3 months without a paycheck? Most can’t go 2 weeks. So where does that leave working parents after the birth of a baby if they aren’t in that lucky 13%? Well, back at work with a tiny infant in daycare, of course.

Is it any wonder so few US mothers bother to breastfeed at all? Or stop after just a few weeks or months?

According to Lactation Consultants, by about the 12-week mark, most mothers have a well-established supply and both mom and baby have gotten the hang of nursing. Well, if mothers have no paid time off and are returning to work after just a few weeks, months if they are lucky, then wouldn’t it make sense that most give up breastfeeding?

Many other countries not only offer paid parental leave but also day care assistance once the parents return to work… Envious? I know I am.

what-percentage-of-women-breastfeedLet’s take Norway for example, they get 35 weeks of parental leave at FULL pay. Remember Norway’s impressive stats above? 98% of mothers in Norway start out breastfeeding with 50% continuing after six months. Those stats certainly seem to line up with the theory that adequate parental leave plays a role in breastfeeding…

How about Poland? Remember that 93% start out breastfeeding and only 10% continue after six months? Can you guess how long their paid parental leave is? If you guessed 26 weeks, you would be right! That’s right about six months. Funny how that works.

Let’s look at Britain, who wasn’t much better than the US in terms of percentages. 63% start out breastfeeding and only 21% continue after six months. Well, the British do get 39 weeks of parental leave but it is only at a fraction of their pay. Perhaps, they can’t afford to stay home at that amount either.

Not giving mothers time home with their babies  has a major impact on breastfeeding rates. Add in the lack of education and support and throw formula in the mix and it’s the perfect recipe for the stats that we see today.

What Can We Do to Improve Breastfeeding Rates?

There are a number of things that can be done to help improve breastfeeding rates. Some are already in the works.

  1. what-percentage-of-women-breastfeedLonger Maternity Leave – Many companies are starting to offer paid parental leave. Netflix offers its salaried employees unlimited paid time off for a full year. Google, Adobe, Nestle, KKR, Goldman Sachs have recently extended their parental leave policies. It’s a start!
  2. Offer free breastfeeding support through hospitals – Most hospitals have Lactation Consultants. The issue is once a mother leaves the hospital, support can be costly. We need free support for nursing mothers!
  3. Hospitals need to join the 10-steps promoted by the WHO and UNICEF to be more breastfeeding friendly.
  4. Affordable Breast Pumps – The ACA (Affordable Care Act) provides provisions for  better preventative care and that includes lactation support. Many insurance plans cover breast pumps. This is fantastic as breast pumps can be pricey and making them available to mothers who normally would not be able to purchase one is a huge step in encouraging mothers to continue to breastfeed.
  5. Support for nursing mothers in the workplace. Working mothers need an adequate place to pump and the flexibility to do that. The Affordable Care Act also helped with some of that requiring employers supply a private place and break times for nursing mothers to pump. But not all companies and job fall under the ACA.

It is not easy to be a nursing mother. There are many obstacles to overcome. But the saying, “breast is best,” is true. Breastfeeding lowers your babies chance of obesity, some cancers, diabetes, SIDS, illnesses, etc. Giving mothers the best possible chance to succeed in her breastfeeding journey is essential.

I hope to see the trend of support from companies and the government for nursing mothers continue and grow.

What do you think of the breastfeeding rates in the world today?


Also See – 

what-percentage-of-women-breastfeed

Read: Benefits of Breastfeeding – Why it Matters

how-many-calories-does-breastfeeding-burn

Read: How Many Calories Does Breastfeeding Burn – Weight Loss While Breastfeeding

medela-freestyle-breast-pump

Medela Freestyle Breast Pump – Why this pump is a MUST have!

 

 

This entry was posted in Blog.

24 comments

  1. Molly says:

    The single biggest issue is paid maternity leave, in my opinion. Frankly I was ready to go back to work at 10 weeks, but even with the ACA providing me a free pump (I purchased two, one for work and one for home) the sheer logistics of working and pumping were excruciating.

    Personally I ended up stopping at 6 months because the breastfeeding hormones gave me PPD. But I had to start supplementing at 4 months because I simply could not keep up with the growth spurts. Perhaps I would have been able to if I got up at night to pump, but being a fulltime working mother – I needed the sleep.

    Thanks for the interesting article. Personally I am not in favor of “Baby-friendly” hospitals because in our area, they traumatize women and are not “mother-friendly”. But supporting women in breastfeeding is important, so I am pleased at all the lactation support that has emerged from that initiative.

    Also, as an aside – time is an incredible luxury. There’s no doubt in my mind that lower income individuals don’t have the time to make pumping work. Pumping at work (because of all the time it takes to coordinate, carry, wash, etc.) is absolutely a luxury of the upper class.

    • Heather Grace says:

      You bring up some excellent points, Molly. I have to agree that the Maternity leave issue is a huge factor. Working and pumping is hard. I have not heard of any issues with mothers in baby-friendly hospitals and will have to look into that some more. The hospital I birthed at was very pro-breastfeeding but I never felt pressured or made to feel a specific way. They were nothing but supportive. I think having access to the right kind of help is key. A good LC should not look down on formula or moms who need to supplement but whether offer advice and have an understanding of each mom’s situation. Then help that mom reach their goals, whatever those may be.

      I really hope as a society we can get there. Supporting our moms is key no matter where they live, how much they make or where they deliver.

      Thank you so much for adding such a good point of view to this very hot topic!

  2. Denise says:

    Hi there,
    This is a great post. Many women in the US are faced with the problem of returning to work six weeks after they have their babies. Without enough support they phase out of breastfeeding their babies before six months.

    I faced this problem with my oldest two. With plenty of support from hospital staff and my husband, I was able to breastfeed my third baby till he was a year and a month old.

    If you look at it, in most of those countries that have high percentages, these women stay at home or are around their baby always. This makes it convenient for them to continue breastfeeding.

    We need a good social system.

    • Heather Grace says:

      Yes, it is a huge issue that most companies and society is not more supportive of nursing mothers. It makes it very difficult to continue. It takes a lot of commitment to nurse a full year or more while working. Being a working mom is not easy!

  3. Jezza says:

    Hey Heather,

    Again, you have presented a very brave and interesting topic here. I absolutely agree with you that one of the main reasons why a mother chooses not to breastfeed really have something to do with the support system from the very start. I for one, hate the thought until now that I have given up BF my baby when he was 3 weeks. I asked for help everywhere, public health nurse visited me, join lactation groups until I found out from a nurse that my baby has a short tongue that makes him hard to latch on my breast. I tried manual pumping but I couldn’t even make at least 1ml and it was very disappointing and heartbreaking not being able to give the best for my child. Wish there were more strong support system around and they have discussed about it more on pregnancy classes. I think government in each countries must do a BF campaign in more strategic ways.

    Jezza

    • Heather Grace says:

      That must have been so frustrating!! I know many moms who went through the same thing. I agree that a support system that can stick with you to help give you solutions may have changed the outcome. I highly recommend all expecting mothers take as many breastfeeding classes as they can. Read books. Talk to a lactation consultant. Knowledge is power. What gets me is that lactation consultants are not always offered for free through a hospital. That alone needs to change. Once a mother goes home she still needs support. Making her pay for that support is not helping the cause. Thank you for your comment on this very hot issue!

  4. Nnamdi says:

    This is an amazing write up on the need to breastfeed our babies. Going by the stats you presented here, I think it is a cause for worry since some countries including the United States are not breastfeeding enough.

    But with your kind of website, it will really create the awareness and encourage women on the need to breastfeed. Like you rightly mentioned in one of your post the breast milk is referred to as ”Liquid Gold”.

    Keep up the good work because the world needs it.

    Thanks

    • Heather Grace says:

      Yes, you are so right that it is cause for worry. The health benefits of breastfeeding are well documented! I do hope to inspire others and do my part to help spread awareness! Thank you for stopping by!

  5. jagulba says:

    Very informative article. As far as I know (in most cases) breast milk is the only thing baby needs before six months. After that, you should not stop breastfeeding (until 12 months) and you just need to bottle-feed him/her formula. What do you think?
    Cheers

    • Heather Grace says:

      Yes, that is true that the WHO and AAP both recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed (meaning only breastmilk, no solids and no formula) for the first six months. Then solids can be introduced while breastfeeding continues until at least two years. Up until 12 months, a baby’s main source of nutrition should be from breast milk (food until one if just for fun). After 12 months, a baby should be eating table food along with breastmilk which will naturally taper off with the more food they eat.

      So, yes, you are right that you should not stop breastfeeding at six months!

      • jagulba says:

        Hi Heather,
        Thanks for the information. I believe two years of breastfeeding will help baby to develop his strength and his connection with mother much better. It’s crucial to remember the formula can also be helpful for baby’s development (and sometimes necessary). I’m glad we have the same idea about breastfeeding. Keep up the good work, well done.
        Cheers

        • Heather Grace says:

          Yes, I agree that two years is very beneficial. The formula versus breast milk is, of course, an age-old debate. Will a baby develop normally on formula alone? Yes. But the health benefits of breastfeeding are well documented. I wrote an article outlining 10 benefits of breastfeeding that you can read here. Breast is best but it certainly doesn’t mean anything is wrong with formula and some don’t have a choice due to issues. If given a choice, breastmilk is the healthier option, however.

  6. Philip Monrean says:

    This is a great topic that more people should be thinking of! I cannot speak from experience but I have read many articles about how unhealthy many baby formulas are. i really believe a mothers breast milk is the best thing for a baby to drink! And America is the worst at overworking its people. Norway and those other countries are rated much better than the U.S. in many things. It does not surprise me that they are better at breast feeding.

    • Heather Grace says:

      I agree, America is behind in many other areas as well! Raising our children needs to be a priority! They are our future. I might consider moving to Norway! haha

      Thank you for your comment!

  7. Maurice McSwain says:

    This article is very well written. The information is great and I am happy I got to read this. My mom breastfed me as a child and did the same with my brothers, she also always bought Soy and Organic milk haha. This is information every beginning parent should know, when I get ready to be one. I’ll be able to reflect back on this. Thank you!

    • Heather Grace says:

      Thank you, Maurice. I think it is great that your mom was so dedicated to give you and your siblings a healthy start. It really does make a difference! It is certainly food for thought. Thank you for stopping by and I hope to see you back again soon.

  8. Lynne says:

    What an interesting read! I never really thought about how many women want to breastfeed.
    I was disappointed that the statistics for my country, South Africa, weren’t on your list. I would be very interested to compare. I would assume that our percentage of breastfeeding moms would be quite high considering we are a third world country and there is a very high rate of unemployment.
    Most moms I personally know have tried to breastfeed. I managed to breastfeed my first baby to 6 months old and my second baby to 13 months old.
    Great article, thank you!

    • Heather Grace says:

      I did run across South Africa in my research for this article. The rates were on the lower side for moms who breastfeed until 6 months but there were other factors like HIV rates in poor parts of the country that played a role. But the good news was it appeared there was a lot of activity going on to help mother get educated on breastfeeding along with support! At the end of the day, that is what all countries need. Support! It takes a village, right?

      I have long thought about tackling the topic of breastfeeding and HIV and perhaps I will sit down and write that! You have inspired me!

      Thank you for your comment!

  9. Christine says:

    Hi Heather. This is a great article and very much needed in this day and age.

    My first child was an emergency caeserean birth and I did not have any milk come down. Luckily (maybe) I had help while still in hospital and with Nursing Mothers Assoc. after. I ‘breastfed/complement fed’ for 3 months until the early hours of the morning when I presented my breast to my baby and he just screamed. I decided then and there that I was stopping.

    I am not sure what kind of help, if any, is in Australia now but we were well taken care of as new mothers 35 years ago.

    My daughter breastfed her baby and had no trouble at all.

    Christine.

    • Heather Grace says:

      That must have been so disheartening. At the end of the day as mothers we just want our babies happy and healthy. It is true that less than 2% of women have a true medical reason as to why they can’t breastfeed but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other factors that can influence a mother’s decision to move to formula.

      Australia is very baby friendly from what I have read! I really love to see so much support for not just mothers but families. I am sure that you were well taken care of!

  10. Ehab says:

    Hello Heather,

    Very interesting post & well written, as an Egyptian glad to find that Egypt is in the countries which have high breastfeeding rates, I have new baby 2 weeks old now I will forward this article to my wife if she finds time to read it lol that’s will be a great information for her, thanks for sharing

    • Heather Grace says:

      Thank you very much, Ehab! And congratulations on the new baby! New moms are certainly busy, busy! You should feel proud that your country takes breastfeeding so seriously. It is a huge health advantage! Thank you for stopping by and perhaps I will see your lovely wife around the site!

  11. envlizard says:

    HeatherGrace – This is a great article! This is an important topic that more people should be talking about. I breastfed my son until he was 1. I thought that it was important to give him the best start possible! All of the information that you provided is true, true, true! Most women don’t have an excuse but it sure seems like everyone that I talk to can come up with something. I feel that very few women even give it a try. And very few women know how rewarding it is! It is a time for you and baby only that is bonding that you will never have again! I enjoyed every minute! Maybe it was because it came so easy but I feel like this was something that I know I did right when it comes to raising my son.

    • Heather Grace says:

      I felt the same way about breastfeeding. It was such a special bond that I will cherish forever! It is such a short period of time and goes so quickly! I am glad you enjoyed the article! I agree there are a lot of excuses out there. I hope through education that can change!

      Thank you for the comment!

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