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?
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:
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:
- Rwanda – 90%
- Sri Lanka – 76%
- Cambodia – 74%
- Nepal – 74%
- Malawi – 72%
- Peru – 71%
- Eritrea – 59%
- Uganda – 57%
- Egypt- 56%
- 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.
So 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)
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:
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.
Let’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.
- Longer 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!
- 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!
- Hospitals need to join the 10-steps promoted by the WHO and UNICEF to be more breastfeeding friendly.
- 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.
- 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?
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