Copyright © 2017. Interamerican Development Bank. If you wish to republish this article, please request authorization at sph-communication@iadb.org

By Andrea Proaño Calderon.

(Lee el artículo original en español acá.)

As many as 22,216 children could be saved every year if mothers constantly breastfed their children during the first 12 months of life. In fact, if infants had been exclusively breastfed during their first six months of life, 823,000 children in 75 countries could have been saved in 2015.

However, only 43 percent of babies worldwide have the privilege of being fed exclusively on breast milk during the first six months of life. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the percentage is even lower, at 32 percent, with the exception of Peru and Bolivia, where it varies between 60 and 79 percent. In poor and rural areas, where the risks of mortality and morbidity are greater, figures for breastfeeding are generally lower. And despite the fact that all children should be fed with breast milk during the first hour of life, this is only done for half the babies in the world.

Why the Fuss?

Breast milk is the best food for infants and is considered so critical to their survival, growth, and development that 170 countries celebrate World Breastfeeding Week from August 1-7 every year.

The most widely known benefits of breastfeeding include:

  • Greater possibilities of survival and less infant mortality
  • Less risk of contracting chronic diseases (diabetes, obesity) and immunological diseases
  • Less risk of contracting or dying from illnesses such as diarrhea or pneumonia
  • Better performance of children on intelligence tests
  • Less probability of invasive breast or ovarian cancer in mothers who breastfeed for more than 12 months.

The Key: Accompanying and Motivating Mothers

The Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington (BCGW) was created in response to a need in hospitals and medical centers, which often lack sufficient tools to educate mothers (as well as the facilities’ own medical staff) on how to breastfeed and why they need to do so. Below we share a conversation with BCGW Deputy Director Gina Caruso.

Based on the experience of the BCGW, what is the key moment when mothers need to receive professional support on this topic?

At the moment when things are not going as they should. If you have post-partum pain, or your baby is not eating for whatever reason, it’s important that you contact us or a breastfeeding support center. Hospitals often lack sufficient staffing to treat post-partum complications, but the longer you wait, the more complicated your problems will become. On the other hand, it’s important to provide support to new mothers from the very start.

What is the biggest hurdle to getting your clients to breastfeed?

The main factor that impedes breastfeeding is the inflexible labor market and the lack of maternity leave, which constrains mothers from establishing breastfeeding relationships with their children. Other factors include irregular health patterns, such as lack of sleep or poor nutrition.

Why is there a general perception in our societies that not all women are capable of breastfeeding their children?

It’s due to a lack of education. Persistent cultural barriers and socioeconomic factors constrain the educational level and access to health of mothers. There are also still prejudices and taboos about breastfeeding in public.

What are the key factors for successful breastfeeding?

Free pre-natal education that covers all aspects of the process, such as what can be expected, what is normal and what is not….That’s the way to determine early on if a mother will need additional support. There is a learning curve. Weekly support groups are a huge component for women, as well as one-on-one sessions. At the Center, the most popular classes are about breastfeeding up to 4-6 months and after returning to work. That says something about the women’s needs.

What are the main problems that come up during breastfeeding?

Wow…there are a lot of them (laughs). The lack of maternity leave, as we mentioned earlier, not being able to produce enough milk, or producing more milk than the baby needs. Sometimes babies have allergies or other nutritional restrictions, or they can’t completely reach the nipple.

What is an acceptable breastfeeding “objective” for the mother and the baby, and how do you establish that objective?

For the World Health Organization (WHO), the minimum period recommended for breastfeeding is two years, and for the American Academy of Pediatrics (APP) it is one year. At the BCGW we do not establish a limit. We think that there is enough judgement on child rearing and, although most mothers continue to breastfeed after one year and up to two years, we want to support them in whatever they decide.

Campaigns such as #YoSacoPecho (“I breastfeed”) and organizations such as the Breastfeeding Center do their part to raise awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding and to combat taboos. What more is needed?

Getting information to women earlier, and working closely with their gynecologist/obstetrician. Each woman who leaves a medical appointment before giving birth should have the information she needs. The hospitals should get involved. It’s not only about giving them baby formula; there’s a need for budgeting to better educate medical personnel, especially in countries with fewer resources.  There have been efforts to make hospitals baby-friendly, but we’re not doing it fast enough! In addition, it is necessary to guarantee that women have access to community centers like the BCGW, which are so necessary but often do not exist, particularly in vulnerable areas.

Support for mothers is fundamental to promoting healthy habits in terms of maternal breastfeeding. What is most needed is a community that can be counted on, especially when there is no family support. If we make progress in that direction, we will have contributed to giving women a safe place to ask questions, share experiences, and take the initiative to embrace this practice.

What difficulties have you encountered with breastfeeding? What has been your experience with breastfeeding? Tell us about it in the comments section or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.

Lee el artículo original en español acá.

Andrea Proaño Calderon is the Communications Consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank’s Social Protection and Health Division.

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