Mothers are now encouraged to nurse for two years – up from one year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ new guidelines.
A mother’s willingness or ability to initiate breastfeeding is dependent on many factors, including support from family, close friends and the hospital or birth center where the child is born. But a host of other barriers have the potential to keep moms from exclusively nursing for even six months, long considered the benchmark before introducing “nutritious complementary foods.”
Barriers to Breastfeeding
In recognition of the challenge that is a lengthened breastfeeding period, the AAP concurrently released a technical report that identifies hurdles and approaches to support nursing moms. Among the challenges moms face are:
- Societal judgement: Upwards of 80% of women breastfeed initially, establishing the practice as a “cultural norm.” However, just one-third of infants are nursed beyond one year. This sharp decline can lead to judgement and comments from well-intentioned, yet misinformed relations – or strangers – who may not recognize the value of longer-term breastfeeding. Similarly, providers should be supportive of nursing beyond one year, though there is evidence that’s not always the case.
- Workplace barriers: The United States is one of only a handful of upper income countries that does not guarantee paid maternity leave. Lack of income or loss of job protection force some moms back to work sooner than they would like. And few businesses provide on-site childcare, which can make it more convenient for moms to nurse during the workday. The country also lacks requirements for workplace breaks and the provision of a clean, private space to nurse or express milk.
- Insurance coverage: In most cases, insurance will provide or reimburse for select breast pumps, but coverage varies by plan and is not guaranteed. Similarly, only some insurers cover lactation support. While most hospitals and birth centers provide an initial consultation, many moms require additional guidance and support to continue nursing.
Benefits of Breastfeeding
The benefits of breastfeeding for both babies and moms are numerous.
Babies who nurse receive immunities from their moms, making them less likely to develop ear infections and less susceptible to stomach bugs. They also experience sudden infant death syndrome at lower rates. And as they grow, babies who were breastfed have lower risk of developing certain conditions, including asthma, obesity and type 1 diabetes.
Moms who nurse likewise reap long-term benefits, including reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
There’s no better time than now, during National Breastfeeding Month, to reflect on the AAP’s updated guidance and recommit to reducing barriers that discourage moms from breastfeeding. As noted, providers, policymakers, employers, insurers and communities all have opportunities to support nursing moms and their babies.