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The Benefits Of Breastfeeding For Infants And Mothers

The Benefits Of Breastfeeding For Infants And Mothers
There are many health benefits from breastfeeding for infants and mothers. We'll talk about efforts to increase breastfeeding rates in California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Health officials have been touting the benefits of breastfeeding for many years, and their message seems to have gotten through to some mothers. But moms from lower income groups, moms who have to get back to work pretty quickly after their babies are born and moms with not that much support at home often don't start or don't continue breastfeeding for any length of time. The federal Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program is sponsoring a number of forums around the state on how policy reforms can even the playing field, allowing more equity for all women who choose to breastfeed. Joining us with more on today’s forum at UCSD is my guest, KPBS health reporter, Kenny Goldberg. Kenny, good morning.

KENNY GOLDBERG (KPBS Health Reporter): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you’re a mother of a young child, tell us what kind of breastfeeding support you received and how it helped in your efforts to breastfeed your child. You can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727 or, if you’d like, you can share your story online at So, Kenny, what are the health benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and their babies?


GOLDBERG: Well, there are a variety of benefits. Doctors say children that are breastfed have fewer ear infections, they have fewer stomach infections, they’re likelier to be healthier. They’re likely – they have less likelihood of being obese when they grow a little older. There are health benefits for the mother, too. There are studies that show that mothers who breastfeed are less likely to suffer from postpartum depression. There are some – there’s some evidence that suggests that mothers who breastfeed may have an easier chance of losing some of their weight that they gained during the pregnancy. So there are a whole host of nutritional and other health benefits for both the mother and the baby.

CAVANAUGH: Now it’s my understanding that California already is ahead of other states when it comes to policies about breastfeeding. Is that right?

GOLDBERG: Well, California was one of the first states to require employers to provide breaks to lactating mothers to pump breast milk, and they also have to provide a separate, private space where they can do that other than a bathroom stall or something. California’s one of the first states to do that. California’s one of the majority of states that allow women to breastfeed in public. And California also has a law that lactating mothers don’t have to do jury duty for the first year.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see. Okay. So in taking advantage of some of these policy reforms and laws that California has, what percentage of mothers breastfeed their infants here in San Diego County?

GOLDBERG: Well, they have a statewide study that takes a look at the percentage of mothers who exclusively breastfeed in the hospital after they’ve delivered, and in San Diego County the rate is 59%. Now that sounds pretty high—it’s higher than the statewide average—but we find that African-American women are in the 43% range and statewide African-American women, only a third breastfeed exclusively in the hospital, so that’s pretty low.


CAVANAUGH: Now why don’t more women breastfeed for a longer period of time?

GOLDBERG: I think that’s the million dollar question. I think the formula lobby is pretty powerful. They spend a lot of money to try to convince women to formula feed their babies. I think, frankly, some doctors, obstetricians and even pediatricians, aren’t that aggressive about encouraging new mothers to breastfeed. They’re more accommodating. They say, well, whatever you want to do is fine. But there’s so many advantages to breastfeeding that it really shouldn’t even be a question. I think that there must be some cultural elements there, too, because we find low income mothers tend to breastfeed less, so do African-American women and Latino women. So there’s a lot of factors involved.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls if you’d like to join the conversation and tell us if you have a story about efforts to breastfeed your child, perhaps some impediments you found to that in your workplace or even at home. 1-888-895-5727. You know, I’m wondering, Kenny, how long do health experts suggest that infants be breastfed?

GOLDBERG: They say six months, exclusively breastfed. They don’t – In other words, babies don’t need any supplemental cereal or formula at all. They say at least six months, that’s the goal.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And so I know that there is an international effort to get more hospitals to encourage breastfeeding. What is this initiative about? And what’s going on here in our local hospitals?

GOLDBERG: It was something started from – by UNICEF. It’s called baby friendly hospitals. And it’s a list of 10 different policies that hospitals need to comply with, including having a written breastfeeding policy that is communicated to all healthcare staff, of rooming babies with their mothers 24 hours a day instead of taking them over to a maternity section and having to bring them in and out of the mother’s room and that kind of thing. They have to have a lactation consultant there at all times. They’re not supposed to hand out formula to mothers, that kind of thing. There are two hospitals in San Diego County that have gotten that baby friendly certification: UCSD Medical Center and Scripps Hospital Encinitas. A few others are supposed to be working on their certification but there are fewer than 100 hospitals nationwide that have been designated as baby friendly.

CAVANAUGH: As I say, we’re inviting you to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. And right now we have a caller. Rita is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Rita. Welcome to These Days.

RITA (Caller, San Diego): Thank you. I’m a physician assistant for a OB-GYN office, a private practice, and I’ve been doing this for 10 years. And it has been a real struggle to get women, especially of minority, to breastfeed. But I’ve found that since WIC changed, I believe, their policy changed in the past year or so, where they don’t provide formula to women in the first month, and since that changed I have had a huge surge in numbers of breastfeeding women. I’m really happy to hear that. Is that true? Have you found that to be the case that they did change the policy?

CAVANAUGH: We don’t have a doctor here. We have a health reporter so I don’t think that we can answer that question, Rita, but let me ask you a question. When you dealt with women, with new mothers, what reasons did they give you for not wanting to breastfeed?

RITA: I would say the number one reason is it was too hard.


RITA: And so I tried to talk to them throughout the pregnancy about how it might be difficult and how it takes time but it takes 100% commitment and how good it is for the baby and for mom. And although I have been doing this for years, I’ve found that only in the past couple of years that things have really started to change and much more women, especially younger women, are starting to breastfeed, and for longer.

CAVANAUGH: Now, is – I must – It must be even harder if somebody doesn’t have a lot of support at home, right?

RITA: That is true, and for the African-American population, for those women that I see, their moms didn’t do it, their sisters or friends haven’t done it, so there’s not much support. And they’re the first ones, a lot of times, so any time I do find that a sister or a friend has done it, they will do it as well.

CAVANAUGH: But anecdotally you’re finding more people, more young mothers, are getting onto this because of a change in policy from WIC.

RITA: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, thank you for your call. I appreciate it. Maria’s calling us from San Clemente. Good morning, Maria, and welcome to These Days.

MARIA (Caller, San Clemente): Good morning. I just wanted to say I nursed all three of my children, my first one for 16 months and my twins for 14 months. And I think the most important factor in being successful at nursing is the support you get from your spouse and from your family. And I just know I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t receive that help from my husband, in particular.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you very much for your call. Let’s go right to Mirvette, Mirvette from Normal Heights. Good morning, Mirvette. Welcome to These Days.

MIRVETTE (Caller, Normal Heights): Good morning. Thank you. I, too, actually had a lot of support while – and I’m, I guess, as a minority, being of European descent and also just 25 years old. And the support is a big factor that plays into it, not only from your family but also from your community as a whole. And being also a student, I didn’t quite have that much support while attending school, and that’s something that I think is also a reason why young mothers, such as myself, have an issue with breastfeeding for longer periods of time. But WIC has proven to help.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you for your call. And, Kenny, I want to go back to you for a minute because I – We’re talking about this today because UCSD is hosting a forum about policy reforms that could actually encourage more women to breastfeed. What policies do advocates say would encourage breastfeeding?

GOLDBERG: Well, one policy that advocates say would really encourage it is to give women more maternity leave. Many women – I mean, what is a family leave? Is it – it’s less than three months, I think, and most maternity leave, I don’t think, is much longer than that. In Europe, for example, they routinely give mothers a year. And that’s one major factor. We already have laws in place that require employers to provide accommodations to lactating mothers, as we know, but a lot of employers evidently don’t know the law and I think some women are unfamiliar with it, too.

CAVANAUGH: And I would imagine in this job climate it’s not the kind of thing that anybody would really want to press right now.

GOLDBERG: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Cindy is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Cindy. Welcome to These Days. Hi, Cindy, are you there? Stephanie, good morning. Are you there?

STEPHANIE (Caller): Yes, hi.


STEPHANIE: This is Stephanie.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, hi, Stephanie. Welcome to These Days.

STEPHANIE: Thanks. I just wanted to say that I was a breastfeeding mother. I breastfed both my daughters. And I think one of the reasons that some women don’t do it who might really want to is because it’s really not as easy as people think it is. It’s really difficult if – at first. It’s not as naturally easy as people think. You can’t just pop the baby on there. And it hurts, it’s painful. It can be messy. And when you’re exhausted and the baby is screaming, it’s very easy if you have formula in the house to just stick a bottle in their mouths and then everybody feels better, you know what I’m saying?

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Now what did you do to get yourself to go the last mile and actually do this?

STEPHANIE: Well, I was lucky in that I had, as the other caller mentioned, a good support system. My husband was very committed to breastfeeding if we could. And even though they gave us formula at the hospital, he threw it out before we got home because he didn’t want us to be tempted and, believe me, at four in the morning on the third day when the baby was screaming, I would’ve been tempted. So we were very lucky to be able to support each other with that and then I, you know, read a lot of books, asked a lot of friends, and realized that I was doing just one tiny thing wrong. And once I fixed that, we were fine. But, you know, you don’t – it doesn’t come as naturally as people think.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely, which is why they’re having this forum, and why it’s so important to have the support at the very beginning at a hospital so that women, if they choose to breastfeed—because we must remember this is still a choice—if they choose to breastfeed, they do it properly and it’s not as hard as the problems Stephanie had.

GOLDBERG: That’s right. And I think what we’re hearing from the callers, and as you said, it’s support. I mean, they need – women need support from the very beginning. They need support even prenatally from their pediatricians, from their obstetricians, to sort of make this the norm because, again, when you think about it, well, almost 6 out of 10 women in San Diego County breastfeed exclusively when they’re in hospital. Well, that means 4 out of 10 don’t, and then the rate always falls off postpartum and post-hospital. And so it’s really a question of what can we do as a society to increase that rate and prolong it for at least six months.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you, Kenny. Thanks for talking about this important subject. I want to let our listeners know that we are going to do another segment, a longer segment, on this topic, so send us your comments and your questions to let us know what you’d like to talk about when it comes to the issue of breastfeeding. You can go online, You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS. Stay with us for hour two, coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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