Moving Breastfeeding from Personal Choice to Public Health Issue

Fia Curley | 8/15/2012, 5:32 p.m.

With her first pregnancy 11 years ago, Sakia'Lynn Harris made some unusual choices. A student at a Historically Black University, Harris had planned her pregnancy, and was determined to nurse her first child exclusively for six months and continue breastfeeding him until age 2 - a rare goal then and now.

Although Harris was never given information about breastfeeding during her prenatal visits, she sought out breastfeeding resources on her own, determined to achieve her goal. Despite a Caesarean-section delivery and the subsequent struggle to feed, Harris fought to follow her plan. She finally achieved her goal only after visiting a lactation consultant in a neighborhood Women, Infants, Children (WIC) office.

Now 33, Harris continues to remain ahead of the curve.

According to the 2011 Breastfeeding Report Card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 75 percent of new moms have tried breastfeeding their children. Six months later about 44 percent of women are breastfeeding. However the number of moms who feed their children only breast milk for six months straight is a little less than 15 percent.

Documented health benefits of breast milk include decreased risk of ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, obesity, asthma and sudden infant death syndrome in babies. Studies also show that women who breastfeed have a decreased risk of breast cancer.

As numerous medical studies have supported the health benefits of breast milk, legislation, community programs and growing public awareness continue to move breastfeeding away from being just an optional way of feeding a newborn toward the spotlight as a major public health concern.

Based on the statistics, it's clear to many that the message is particularly needed in minority communities, which have drastically lower rates of breastfeeding, particularly in the category of only feeding babies breast milk for six consecutive months.

A little less than 60 percent of black babies are breastfed at least once. Twenty-eight percent of black babies receive some breast milk six months later, with only 8 percent being fed only breast milk at six months. Although breastfeeding rates within the United States have steadily increased during the past decade, disparities continue to exist, as many women face the challenge of questioning relatives who used formula to feed their own children, popular beliefs that the act of breastfeeding is inappropriate, a lack of social support and the historical aftereffects of family segmentation through slavery and regulations of government programming.

In 2011, the United States Breastfeeding Committee declared August to be National Breastfeeding Month, with the first week coinciding with World Breastfeeding Week. The 19th U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA also issued an official Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding , inviting employers, family members, health professionals and grandparents to not only ease the stress of breastfeeding mothers but to encourage breastfeeding in support of a healthy nation. The Affordable Care Act expanded access to breastfeeding counseling, support and supplies without any cost-sharing, which began Aug. 1.

"It is a struggle, no matter what," said Harris, whose fight to provide what she knew was right for her child led her to become an international board certified lactation consultant working in Florida.