GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) - Health experts across the globe are encouraging new moms to "latch-on" as World Breastfeeding Week kicks off Thursday.
Even though womens' bodies are naturally made to breast feed, the issue is often clouded with controversy, social stigmas, and for many moms - fear.
"The fear of 'Do I have any milk? Do I have enough milk?'. Fear of breast feeding in front of people and fear of 'I don't know how to latch my baby on,' said Alice Christensen, a nurse and board certified lactation consultant at Mercy Health Saint Mary's campus in Grand Rapids. "Yeah, there is a lot of fear."
The hospital has made a commitment to providing education and support for new moms who want to make the choice to nurse their children. The benefits of breast feeding include a mother's milk providing babies with antibodies to help prevent infections and a long list of illnesses in babies. One recent study even suggests that children who are breast-fed have better language comprehension and higher IQs. However, too often, breastfeeding rates show a sharp decline in the weeks and months following delivery.
"Survey after survey tells us that women understand the importance of breast feeding and they get the reasons to breast feed, the benefits of breast feeding, but there are all these barriers that get in the way of breast feeding. We call them cultural barriers or institutional barriers," said Christensen. "Possibly in their family, or circle of influence, no one has breast fed. And, in our culture, breasts are usually seen as a sexual object not as a method of feeding infants. So we have a lot of cultural barriers to break down. The gift is the more we talk about it and the more we identify go one-on-one with each woman and find out what there frustrations are, what their concerns and worries about breastfeeding are, we can address those individually. We can help break those down those barriers."
World Breastfeeding Week is an annual event with the goal of encouraging mothers to exclusively breast feed for the first six months of her babies life. This year, the goal and theme of World Breastfeeding Week, "Breastfeeding Support: Close to Mothers," is to encourage more community support and peer counseling.
According to the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action and the World Health Organization, "the period when mothers do not visit a healthcare facility is the time when a community support system for mothers is essential."
"We started a couple of years ago first feedings training where we looked at the first three days of an infants life and identified ways we could change our practice to be more evidence-based to support the normal way to feed an infant in those first three days. There were a number of training initiatives that took place where staff, at the bedside, were trained how to help a woman breast feed," said Christensen. "That has significantly changed our outcomes and in particularly our exclusive breast feeding rates. Before we did that initiative, we had women coming here who said they wanted to breast feed. About 78% of women walked in the door saying 'I want to breast feed' but only maybe 30% to 32% of those women were leaving breast feeding. With that training we bumped those numbers up to 54% in 2012 and so far in 2013 we are up to 64%."
The hospital even offers a breast pump loaner program for mother's with babies in the NICU and may not be able to latch on.
"We loan out that pump for a $20 deposit for 2 weeks. That deposit is returned to the moms when the pump is returned. That gives us a couple of weeks to find another pump for her but it also gives her a chance to work on milk production," said Christensen.
She says thanks to growing awareness more moms are encouraged to breast feed their babies. However, she believes there is room for much more progress.
"The State of Michigan has a lot of work to do yet. We still are one of four states that does not have a law to support the right to breast feed wherever a mother and baby have a right to be. Most of the states in the United States have that law. We do not," she said. "There is a lot of work being done at the state level for advocacy to help change that because it is a reality you can be asked to leave anywhere."
Mercy Health Saint Mary's says its "Breastfeeding Support Group has also seen a large increase in participation, up 64% from the previous June. A free resource to the community, this mother-to-mother group provides support to any expectant, breastfeeding or pumping mother."
Free support groups meet on Mondays from 6-7:30 p.m. and Fridays from 3-4:30 p.m. at the Saint Mary's Campus, the support group is led by a Certified Lactation Consultant, Jonelle Lund.
The hospital has more information on its website.
World Breastfeeding week is August 1st - 7th.