By Nick Tabor, New Era Senior Staff Writer
When local nurses rave about the advantages of breastfeeding over infant formula, they sound like they could go on endlessly.
Breast milk passes along antibodies from mother to child, said Jennifer Boone, the certified lactation counselor at the Christian County Health Department. It decreases risks of cancer. It nurtures the brain. It improves night vision, said Jennifer Rush, a lactation counselor at Jennie Stuart Medical Center.
“What else would help with night vision?” Rush said.
Nevertheless, in the most recent data available, from 2007 to 2009, only 38 percent of newborns in Christian County were breastfed, the University of Louisville reports.
The national rate last year was 75 percent, the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Promotion reports.
The first week of August was World Breastfeeding Week. In response, Kentucky health officials are urging new fathers and the family members, friends and employers of new mothers to help build a “supportive network” for breastfeeding.
Both Boone and Rush point to lack of support as the top reason so few women breastfeed. It’s certainly not due to dangers about children’s health, they said — evidence shows the health benefits are overwhelming.
Breastfed babies typically have fewer respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, fewer allergies, and fewer ear and urinary infections, Boone said.
She said it builds a protective lining in the gastrointestinal tract, whereas acid in infant formula can strip the lining away.
Rush said breastfeeding encourages healthy eating habits.
Babies who breastfeed only start eating when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full, she said. With formula, babies have to eat on schedules that may not match their appetites. Overfeeding trains babies to fill their stomachs to unhealthy levels, she said.
Babies have to use their tongues to get milk from their mothers’ breasts, and this can improve oral motor skills, helping them to learn to talk, and can improve teeth development, Rush said.
Breastfeeding can improve self-esteem by encouraging eye-to-eye contact between mother and child, Rush said. It can decrease mothers’ risks of breast and ovarian cancer and osteoporosis.
Nor would finances explain the percentage of breastfeeding mothers. While the average cost of formula climbs above $2,000 a year, breastfeeding remains basically free, Rush said.
The health department and hospital offer abundant resources to pregnant mothers and their partners. Every other month Boone offers a free class on breastfeeding, and Rush offers every month. They cover the benefits of breastfeeding, feeding techniques, equipment needed, and tips on maintaining a breastfeeding schedule while working or going to school.
Rush also takes one-on-one appointments to counsel women on breastfeeding. She plans to implement support groups eventually.
In May, Jennie Stuart implemented “kangaroo care” in its delivery unit, meaning it promotes skin-to-skin contact between newborns and parents. Studies suggest kangaroo care dramatically raises the number of mothers who breastfeed.
But often these resources aren’t enough. Sometimes mothers’ nipples get sore, their supplies of milk seem to decrease, and they have latching problems, Boone said. They may give up without family support.
Also, women who used formula sometimes discourage their family members from breastfeeding. They pass on their habits through generations, Rush said.
“Right now, natural is formula,” she said. “That’s what we push as a society.”
Fathers may prefer bottle-feeding so they can participate, but this doesn’t help their children, Rush said.
Even women who have support from family and spouses may stop breastfeeding if their work environments discourage it. The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services suggests four steps employers can take to promote breastfeeding.
Employers should give women flexible time — 10 to 15 minutes, three times a day — to express milk; they should provide space to breastfeed or express milk in privacy; they should provide education on combining breastfeeding and work; and managers and co-workers should have express encouragement, according to a state news release.