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Breastfeeding in the 21st Century: Setting up for Success

May 11, 2022
Miranda Obryan

mother breastfeeding baby on couch

While over 80% of mothers attempt breastfeeding their newborns, only one in four continues breastfeeding past the first six months outside the womb. The further from the birth date it gets, the less likely it is for breastfeeding to continue. There are many reasons for this pattern; in this blog, we’ll explore breastfeeding benefits, challenges, and tips for success.

Benefits of Breastmilk

Common sense tells us that breastmilk is best. Not only is it completely natural, but it’s custom-tailored to your baby’s exact needs. Doctors agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recommending exclusive breastfeeding for a baby’s first six months and encouraging a full year of the practice. Studies have found a correlation between a reduced risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and babies who are breastfed longer.

Breastfeeding has health benefits for both mothers and babies. Human milk contains proteins and living leukocyte cells that protect your baby against infections from bacteria and viruses and also contain properties that encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria for a healthy flora and easy digestion in your infant’s belly. Long-term benefits to the baby include reduced risk of:

  • Asthma
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Lower respiratory diseases
  • Ear infections
  • Gastrointestinal infections

The health benefits to mothers who breastfeed include lower blood pressure along with a reduced risk of diabetes and certain types of cancer, including ovarian and breast cancer. Studies have found that the longer a mother can breastfeed her child, the more likely that she will experience improved health when it comes to the circulatory system.

Why is Breastfeeding So Challenging Now

We all pretty much recognize that breastfeeding is best, so why do the breastfeeding rates drop off so dramatically after the first few months? Let’s tackle them in the order that they usually come.

First, mothers may have trouble from the get-go while still in the hospital. Baby may have trouble latching, mom may struggle to find the right position, and mom’s milk supply may lag behind. Doctors in the hospital might push for formula or donor milk to supplement if they are concerned that mom’s supply is not sufficient. This can wreak havoc on a mom’s confidence in her ability to feed her baby naturally.

Luckily, most hospitals have a lactation consultant that diligently tries to help the new mother make the bond and get breastfeeding off to a good start. Once leaving the hospital, mothers don’t have a lactation professional nearby to help and may continue to face issues with latching. She may also struggle with the routine required to feed the baby all hours of the day and may long for sleep and a break.

If a mother is still able to continue breastfeeding once transitioning home, another transition period may upset the routine: returning to work. 7 in 10 mothers with children under 18 participate in the labor force to earn income. It’s not practical to return to the office with your infant by your side to breastfeed on-demand, so most mothers will start to pump their breastmilk so that their baby can still receive the benefits of breastmilk from a bottle.

Transitioning to pumped breastmilk and time away from baby can cause problems for a mother’s milk supply, making her wonder if she will be able to maintain the supply to keep up with her baby’s nutritional needs.

Other factors that can pose a challenge and deter a mother from continuing breastfeeding include taking medications, lack of support at home or work, societal pressure, and a host of other reasons.

How to Overcome Obstacles and Breastfeed Your Baby Longer

Fortunately, society recognizes that the drop in breastfeeding is detrimental and is poised to correct it. We are collectively getting better at providing more tools for success. One such action was taken in 2011 by the Surgeon General in his Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding. This call to action provided twenty action steps for harboring an environment of support for breastfeeding mothers, including:

  • Funding health departments to provide lactation support
  • Creating breastfeeding guides
  • Establishing EMPower breastfeeding programs in hospitals
  • Providing a legal requirement for break time and private space for nursing mothers

So while organizations are still working on making breastfeeding easier and more achievable, there are other things mothers can do on a personal level to increase their chances of success with long-term breastfeeding.

Set yourself up for success by exploring resources designed especially for mothers who desire to breastfeed. One of these is La Leche League, an organization that supports breastfeeding families and provides helpful resources as well as group meetings. Meetings are free, operate online or in-person, and are run by volunteer parents who breastfed their own children. Attending meetings at any point during the process, from pregnancy to anytime after birth, is encouraged.

You can also proactively find and establish a relationship with a local lactation consultant from the United States Lactation Consultant Association (USLCA) that you can speak with regularly once you’ve left the hospital to help overcome challenges and transitions. A personal lactation consultant can prove to be an invaluable resource for both physical guidance and mental support.

As a breastfeeding mother, it’s likely that you’ll experience ebbs and flows in milk production, and, depending on your situation, you may need to supplement or transition to using a breast pump in order to keep your supply up or pump when your baby is not with you.

Here are some quick tips to increase your milk production:

  • Increase the frequency of nursing or pumping at least eight times per day
  • Wake up earlier to get additional pumping sessions in
  • Use a breast pump after nursing
  • Purchase a mobile, hands-free pump so that it is not as inconvenient and can be done while performing other activities like driving
  • Focus on your self-care and relaxation to reduce stress

Concluding Thoughts

Breastfeeding is not as easy as it looks. If you want to breastfeed your baby, you can do it with support. Use the support networks and resources outlined in this article to achieve your breastfeeding goals. Our online physicians at My Virtual Physician, which include OBGYN, pediatric, and primary care specialists, are also available to help if you have any concerns around breastfeeding, nutrition, or milk production.

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