As part of her “Let’s Move” campaign to reduce childhood obesity, First Lady Michelle Obama has made the important connection to breastfeeding. Acknowledging that longer breastfeeding duration is associated with lower incidence of obesity in children, Obama wants to increase breastfeeding rates, especially in the African-American community, where breastfeeding rates are especially low.
What is especially exciting about Obama’s approach, is that does not focus on the personal choice of a mother to breastfeed or not to breastfeed, which is a common type of campaign. Instead, Obama is hoping to find ways to support women who want to breastfeed and help them to ensure success.
The Obama administration has helped to deliver on this goal by providing for expanded national workplace regulations ensuring women the right to pump milk in the workplace. The IRS also has finally acknowledged breast pumps and breastfeeding supplies as a deductible health expense. Supporting breastfeeding in the workplace is an important step, allowing women to breastfeed for longer, as well as overcoming the early attitude that there is no point to starting to breastfeed as it will be too hard to maintain once returning to work.
But what is so wonderful to see from the First Lady, as an experienced nursing mother, is the acknowledgement that women need support when establishing breastfeeding. She is encouraging more hospitals to work towards the “Baby Friendly Hospital” designation. The Baby Friendly USA program requires training for doctors and nurses involved in birth and post-partum care, along with other requirements that will support women who want to try breastfeeding. It also requires minimal separation of mother and baby and elimination of routine, non-medical administration formula or other supplements.
Michelle Obama’s assertion that “breastfeeding is a personal choice” has disappointed some breastfeeding advocates, and gave me pause at first considering that she is promoting breastfeeding for the very cause of public health, making it very much NOT a personal choice. I do believe that the message to women should continue to be that breastfeeding is without question what is best for the baby and that formula should not ever be presented as an “equal alternative.”
However, I have a great deal of respect Obama’s approach of looking more at the hospital and workplace circumstances that reduce success rates or shorten duration of breastfeeding. Once we can ensure success for all women who WANT to breastfeed and begin to dispel the many myths about why breastfeeding fails, then we can move onto the much smaller group of women who simply choose not to breastfeed.
At that point, this group will probably naturally reduce itself, because success breeds success. Imagine breastfeeding rates climb when women begin to talk about how supported they felt at work, or how things were tricky at first but how the great support they received at the hospital and in the early weeks made it easy. Today, women are more likely to hear about sore nipples and low milk supply. With early support and intervention by properly trained doctors nurses, peers and counselors, this is a completely reachable goal.
Hurrah to Michelle Obama for having the courage to include breastfeeding in her campaign to support a healthy start for children. And congratulations for recognizing that the issue of support and education, especially in hospitals and workplaces will likely make a bigger difference in achieving this goal than simply pointing the finger at women (many of whom actually already DO want to breastfeed) without providing them with the resources for success.