On January 20, 2011, United States Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin announced an significant “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding.” What is impressive about this Call to Action is the recognition that the primary obstacle to increasing breastfeeding rates is a lack of support for women who want to breastfeed. Rather than focusing on a mother’s choice to breastfeed or not to breastfeed, the Surgeon General takes the important step of acknowledging that mothers who want to breastfeed face significant barriers to success. This is an important step to reaching the increased breastfeeding rates outlined in the Healthy People 2020 goals.
The Obama administration has been good for breastfeeding advocacy. The Obama-backed health care bill contained improved national protection for breastfeeding in the workplace. Michelle Obama, who breastfed both her daughters, speaks about the importance of supporting and increasing breastfeeding as part of “Let’s Move” campaign to end childhood obesity and in public discussions on work-life balance.
Now, the Surgeon General’s Call to Action publicly affirms the important benefits of breastfeeding for the future health of both children and mothers. It also touts benefits to employers through reduced sick days, reduced health insurance claims and happier mothers. During her appearance at George Washington University, when asked about having breast pumps classified by the IRS as a medical device, Benjamin pledged “to ensure all branches of government understand the importance of breastfeeding for the health of America’s mothers and children.”
Benjamin’s Call to Action includes specific action items for those who surround new mothers to undertake that will help support her if she wants to breastfeed. Targets include obvious stakeholders like the health care community employers, but also include insightful initiatives for community leaders, friends and family of mothers. Most importantly, she outlines specific recommendations for policy makers.
Perhaps the most significant recommendations to those of us who advocate the importance of breastfeeding include a call:
For more hospitals to implement the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiatives
To ensure access to International Board Certified Lactation Consultants
For breastfeeding education for health professionals who care for women and children
For employers to work towards paid maternity leave for women
And (drumroll, please…)
For Policymakers to support compliance with the International Code of Marketing Breast-milk Substitutes.
But equally important are some of the smaller initiatives she outlines, such as:
Developing programs to educate grandparents and fathers about breastfeeding
Specific initiatives for African-American communities which have lower breasteeding rates than the general population, and
Increasing access to peer-to-peer support and community-based education
What is truly significant about her approach is that so much breastfeeding advocacy has been focused on encouraging mothers to breastfeed. But without the proper support from Benajamin’s targets – health care, workplace, family, community and policy – too many women are unable to succeed and are left feeling like failures due to little or no “fault” of their own. At this point breastfeeding advocacy and encouragement is recast as “guilting” mothers to breastfeed and a backlash ensues. It appears that Benjamin’s Call to Action looks to mount a correction to this problem by pairing the encouragement strategy with the appropriate support.
Kudos to Dr. Regina Benjamin for approaching this critical health issue in an intelligent and sensitive way. I eagerly look forward to watching this initiative unfold and hope that I can play my own small but important part in my own community.