–This post is part of our 10-year anniversary series “Breastfeeding is…” When we initially curated this series, we planned for 10 weeks, but breastfeeding is so many things that we just couldn’t fit it all in. Thus, two bonus weeks in our anniversary series! —
Breastfeeding is not binary.
There’s solid evidence that direct breastfeeding offers the most protective and beneficial effects to mothers, babies and ultimately society.
When breastfeeding, a baby’s saliva transfers chemicals to their mother’s body that causes her milk to adjust to meet the changing needs of the baby. [Al-Shehri, et al 2015]
Even more fascinating, the combination of baby saliva and fresh breastmilk generates enough hydrogen peroxide to inhibit growth of Staphylococcus and Salmonella. Read about the science behind it allhere.
Breastfeeding encourages proper mouth and jaw development and promotes oral health.
When babies breastfeed, they are less likely to become obese for reasons like self-regulation of milk intake and seeding of their gut microbiomes. [Pérez-Escamilla, 2016]
Infants at the breast, compared to bottle-fed infants, have better heart and respiratory rates and higher oxygen saturation rates because breastfeeding consumes less energy.
Breastfeeding has implications on mother-infant bonding and children’s future behavior. One study found that “compared to children whose mothers breastfed them, children who were not breastfed showed an increased number of internalizing behavioral problems, particularly anxious/depressed and somatic symptoms… A duration effect (dosage effect) appeared such that breastfeeding for 10 months or longer had the strongest impact on reducing anxious/depressed and somatic symptoms in children.”
Direct breastfeeding does not require feeding paraphernalia that may be vectors for disease.
Even if the contents of a bottle contain human milk, the effects achieved through direct breastfeeding may not be possible.
However, the reality of families’ lives, and sometimes choice, mean that most babies in the U.S. will not exclusively breastfeed or go on to breastfeed in conjunction with appropriate complementary feeding as recommended.
The most recent CDC Breastfeeding Report Card acknowledges, “Numerous barriers to breastfeeding remain, and disparities persist in breastfeeding duration and exclusivity rates by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Policy, systems, and environmental changes that address breastfeeding barriers, such as better maternity care practices, paid leave policies, and supportive ECE centers, can help to improve breastfeeding rates and reduce disparities.”
Fiona Jardine and Aiden Farrow present experiences that do not fit into how we often generalize the infant feeding experience.
Jardine’s work follows those who exclusively pump human milk. Farrow too pumped milk for their child born with cleft complications and then went on to directly chestfeed their baby.
Farrow has explained: “Feeding methods are not mutually exclusive. There are always windows and doors.”
Lactation care providers, other care providers, health policies and procedures must all acknowledge the incredibly diverse experiences of families while honoring the very ubiquitous human desire that we all want what’s best for our babies.
Our 10-year anniversary giveaway has ended. Thank you to everyone who participated!
Kathleen Kendall Tackett’s work also illuminates how breastfeeding can heal trauma. Her videos, How Birth Trauma Affects Breastfeeding and Breastfeeding Can Heal Birth Trauma and Breastfeeding’s Healing Impact on Sexual Assault Trauma discuss the mechanisms behind why and how breastfeeding can be helpful for trauma survivors. Essentially, breastfeeding allows for the down regulation of stress responses, specifically adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol, and similar to exercise, improves maternal mood, decreases the risk of depression, decreases hostility, and improves the mother infant bond.
Jennie Toland, BSN, RN, CLC offers commentary on the role lactation care providers play in offering trauma-informed care in this piece.
This Invisibila episode, Therapy Ghostbusters, shares the incredible story of how a Cambodian practitioner worked to help heal an entire community from generational trauma. It took him over a year to simply earn individuals’ trust.
“…That’s pretty unique,” the podcast hosts point out and offers insight into how our nation approaches care for individuals with specific mental health needs and cultural considerations.
Goldhammer quotes Round Rock elder Annie Kahn: “When a mother nurses her baby, she is giving that child her name, her story and her life’s song. A nursed baby will grow to be strong in body, mind and spirit.”
This connection to the past that Kahn refers to, also offers a form of healing. Breastfeeding is an example of Indigenous food sovereignty, “a part of living culture” and facilitates the revitalization of traditional knowledge. (Cidro, et al 2018)
The revitalization of breastfeeding spans the Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) experience and is a channel to champion equity.
“Breastfeeding is an especially important public health issue in Black communities, particularly given that Black families and communities continue to experience the highest burden related to poor maternal and infant health outcomes, including higher incidence of preterm birth, low birth weight, maternal mortality and morbidity, infant mortality, and lower breastfeeding rates. Owing to lifetime exposure of racism, bias, and stress, Black women experience higher rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and aggressive breast cancer. Given that cardiovascular disease and postpartum hemorrhage are leading causes of maternal mortality and morbidity, increasing breastfeeding rates among Black women can potentially save lives.”
More specifically, studies show that the experience of racial discrimination accelerates the shortening of telomeres (the repetitive sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect the cell) and ultimately contributes to an increase in people’s risks of developing diseases.
It has been found that higher anxiety scores and inflammation are associated with shorter telomere length.
Because physical and psychological stressors trigger the inflammatory response system, one way to counter this reaction is by supporting ongoing breastfeeding relationships; when breastfeeding is going well, it protects mothers from stress. (Kendall-Tackett, 2007)
Another study found that early exclusive breastfeeding is associated with longer telomeres in children.
The authors of Achieving Breastfeeding Equity and Justice in Black Communities: Past, Present, and Future continue, “Yet breastfeeding is rarely seen as a women’s health, reproductive health, or a public health strategy to address or reduce maternal mortality and morbidity in the U.S. Inequities in lactation support and breastfeeding education exacerbate health inequities experienced by Black women, specifically maternal mortality and morbidity, and thus a greater investment in perinatal lactation and breastfeeding education and resources is warranted. Breastfeeding is an essential part of women’s reproductive health.”
Journalist and maternal child health advocate Kimberly Seals Allers’ approach is one “For Black people, from Black people.”
“…The call to revive, restore and reclaim Black breastfeeding is an internal call to action,” Kimberly Seals Allers begins in Black Breastfeeding Is a Racial Equity Issue. “… Breastfeeding is our social justice movement as we declare the health and vitality of our infants as critical to the health and vitality of our communities.”
Specifically through her work with Narrative Nation, Seals Allers and colleagues are promoting health equity “by democratizing how the story of health disparities is told,” centering BIPOC voices. Additionally, through her Birthright podcast, KSA uplifts stories of joy and healing in Black birth.
Especially after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, organizations made statements about their commitments to dismantling structural racism and focusing efforts on equity.
As part of our celebration, we are giving away an online learning module with contact hours each week. Here’s how to enter into the drawings:
Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and “OMW is 10” in the subject line.
This week, in the body of the email, tell us about how you are contributing to working toward healthy equity.
Subsequent weeks will have a different prompt in the blog post.
We will conduct a new drawing each week over the 10-week period. Please email separately each week to be entered in the drawing. You may only win once. If your name is drawn, we will email a link with access to the learning module. The winner of the final week will score a grand finale swag bag.
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