Can you imagine a readily available medicine that increases immunity to all kinds of diseases and decreases intestinal problems and obesity? If it sounds like the kind of miracle drug that can’t possibly exist, think again – it’s breast milk!  While the WHO recommends that babies be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months of their life, there are, unfortunately, many obstacles to breastfeeding both at home and abroad.  In the heartbreaking and frustrating New York Times article “The Breast Milk Cure,” the author discusses the common misconception that babies need to be given water on hot days.  In developing countries, this is extremely dangerous to the babies’ health because of the high risk of contaminated water that can quickly cause death in an infant.  And when formula is used in developing countries, the risk of illness is again high due to improperly sanitized baby bottles and the probability of contaminated water being mixed with the formula.  A third problem relating to breastfeeding is the cultural practice of colostrum denial.  Colostrum is the yellow substance produced during the first days after delivery; it contains many antibodies to build the immunity of infants.When women delay nursing for even a few days, they may have increased difficultly in establishing breastfeeding, in addition to forgoing the opportunity to provide critical antibodies to the infant. New mothers that deny their infants colostrum are also more likely to feed their babies contaminated water until milk is produced.  If more women practiced ideal breastfeeding, a substantial amount of infant mortality could be prevented – 1.4 million deaths per year, according to The Lancet.

While “The Breast Milk Cure” focuses on Africa, the state of breastfeeding in the US also shows considerable room for improvement.  For example, the CDC released a report this summer stating that US hospitals fail to adequately support mothers in breastfeeding.  This article discusses the CDC report and explains that hospitals can actually support formula use, as opposed to breastfeeding, through the use of free formula samples for new parents.  An Associated Press article published last week explained the reasons why free formula samples undermine breastfeeding: because samples are given to the new mothers by the hospital, people really think it must be good for their babies.  Formula industry representatives defend the practice of the free samples by saying that they provide an important source of nutrition to have available for the baby if needed for any reason, and that the information included with the sample instructs parents in how to use formula safely, such as making it clear that formula cannot safely be watered down.  It is my opinion that hospitals should not be allowed to distribute free formula samples because they are obviously intended to encourage formula use, which goes against the WHO recommendation that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is the healthiest way to nourish a baby.

Returning to the CDC report, I was astounded to read that only about 1/3 of US hospitals keep the mother and baby together at all times.  Having a separate nursery for babies seems like something from a movie that belongs in another era, but it is still the circumstance in which many American babies begin their lives.  This harmful and easily changeable practice makes it much more difficult for mothers to establish breastfeeding and to receive help for any problems they have with it while they are still in the hospital.  As we can see, there is much work to be done both at home and abroad to increase the prevalence of breastfeeding.

If you would like to read more on this important public health issue, here is a selection of other articles on the topic:

The Wall Street Journal

The Center For Disease Control

The Huffington Post


About the Author: Mara Constantine is a 4th year sociology major and California native. She is currently a research assistant for Professor Kristin Luker. In addition to writing for the Public Health Advocate blog, Mara is also an active member of the Cal Cooking Club and a tutor in the YWCA’s English-in-Action program. Her public health interests include maternal and child health, health of immigrant populations, and health disparities.