Breastfeeding seems to be a no-brainer. It’s by far the best nutrition for a baby, it builds a healthy immune system, it helps the mother lose pregnancy weight and bond to her infant, it’s simple, portable, and convenient, and for the vast majority of women, it will work just fine. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy. We know that it’s the best choice, but without a good support network, women aren’t as likely to breastfeed for a significant amount of time. Our baby is six weeks old today. We had great midwives who helped me get started with breastfeeding and supported me through the first – very painful – couple weeks. Adding to the long list of reasons I’m glad we didn’t have our baby in a hospital, it looks like there’s a decent chance that breastfeeding wouldn’t have been as much of a priority for the hospital staff as it was for us.
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least a year, and the World Health Organization advises breastfeeding for two years, only 3 out of 4 babies in the US are EVER breastfed, and only 1 in 5 are still being breastfed at one year. Since we know that breastfeeding is the best choice for a baby’s health, and hospitals are supposed to be in the business of promoting health, why in the world are hospitals not doing a better job of getting new moms off to a good start with breastfeeding? Why are they introducing pacifiers and bottles in the nursery? Why are they sending new parents home with free samples of formula? Could it possibly have to do with convenience for the hospital staff and financial incentives from the formula manufacturers? Afterall, giving a crying newborn a pacifier is a pretty quick way to get some peace and quiet – even if it might lead to nipple confusion and reduced breastfeeding in the future. And as far as money goes, nobody is making a profit from breastfeeding. But the sooner a mother switches to formula, the sooner she becomes a customer for the formula industry. And what better way to speed up the process than by handing out free samples to people who are only a few days into their parenthood journey. My own experience with breastfeeding (which is very similar to the vast majority of other mothers with whom I’ve talked about this) was that it took about two weeks to stop hurting. Giving formula samples to a woman who may be in the midst of a painful initiation to breastfeeding seems like a good way to get her to stop breastfeeding. So why would hospitals do this, if they know that the ultimate goal – according to the AAP and the WHO – should be breastfeeding for at least a year?
There are a number of things that a hospital can do to encourage and support women in their quest to breastfeed their babies. Starting the feeding process within an hour of birth, keeping the baby in the same room with the mother, not using pacifiers in the hospital, not supplementing with water or formula, and giving a new mother access to a breastfeeding support system once she returns home with her baby will all help get breastfeeding off to a good start. And yet according to a newsletter published by the Colorado Breast Feeding Task Force last fall, only one in five breastfeeding Colorado mothers had a hospital experience that exclusively promoted breastfeeding.
The benefits of breastfeeding are well established. The babies are healthier throughout childhood, and the benefits to their immune systems last far beyond the end of breastfeeding. Since healthier babies result in fewer health insurance claims, it seems that health insurance companies should be in the business of actively encouraging breastfeeding at every turn – perhaps even with lowered premiums for mothers and children for the duration of breastfeeding. Hospitals are getting a failing grade when it comes to promoting and supporting early breastfeeding. I would encourage health insurance companies to actively work with hospitals on their networks to resolve these issues (and they’re really pretty simple issues to fix) and make breastfeeding a priority.