Mothers who choose to breastfeed their babies face many barriers to success, and Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin wants to change that. A "Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding" was recently issued which outlined steps that can be implemented to take the hassle out of breastfeeding.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Dietetic Association support the Surgeon General's Call to Action.

"Many barriers exist for mothers who want to breastfeed," said Dr. Benjamin. "They shouldn’t have to go it alone. Whether you’re a clinician, a family member, a friend, or an employer, you can play an important part in helping mothers who want to breastfeed."

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Dietetic Association support the Surgeon General's Call to Action. Both organizations have position papers that promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life and encourage the continuation of breastfeeding until at least 12 months of age.

"The hardest thing is to keep it up because our society and our culture aren’t there to support them (breastfeeding mothers)" said Dr. Benjamin. According to statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control, 75 percent of new mothers start out breastfeeding, but rates of breastfeeding at 6 and 12 months as well as rates of exclusive breastfeeding at 3 and 6 months still do not meet the objectives of Healthy People 2010. Only 13 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed at the end of six months.

New mothers who start out breastfeeding their infants report many factors that interfere with their efforts, such as a lack of support at home, no family members with experience in breastfeeding, a lack of information from health care professionals, a lack of time and privacy to either breastfeed or express milk while at work, and an inability to connect with other breastfeeding moms.

Dr. Benjamin’s call to action details specific ways that health-care providers, employers, insurers, policymakers, researchers, and the community can improve breastfeeding rates and offer support for breastfeeding. According to the press release issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nursing mothers can be encouraged and supported in several ways:

  • Communities should expand and improve programs that provide mother-to-mother support and peer counseling.
  • Health care systems should ensure that maternity care practices provide education and counseling on breastfeeding. Hospitals should become more "baby-friendly," by taking steps like those recommended by the UNICEF/WHO’s Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative.
  • Clinicians should ensure that they are trained to properly care for breastfeeding mothers and babies. They should promote breastfeeding to their pregnant patients and make sure that mothers receive the best advice on how to breastfeed.
  • Employers should work toward establishing paid maternity leave and high-quality lactation support programs, expand the use of programs that allow nursing mothers to have their babies close by so they can feed them during the day and provide women with break time and a private place to express breast milk.
  • Families should give mothers the support and encouragement they need to breastfeed.
  • Breastfeeding offers many benefits to both mothers and babies. Protective factors in breast milk include antibodies that defend against diarrhea, middle ear infections, and respiratory illnesses. Babies who are breastfed for at least six months are less likely to become obese. Breast milk may also offer protection against the development of cardiovascular disease later in life. Nursing mothers shed pounds faster, and have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers as well as osteoporosis.

The economic benefits of breastfeeding are also worth noting. Formula feeding can cost up to $1,500 in the first year of life. A study published in the journal Pediatrics estimated that $13 billion could be shaved off of health care and other costs if 90 percent of U.S. babies received breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life. Dr. Benjamin believes that if employers would provide accommodations for nursing mothers, they could reduce their health care costs and lower their absenteeism and turnover rates.

The U. S. Surgeon General’s "Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding" was released on January 20, 2011 and can be accessed here.