Breast Milk: Life-Saving Medicine

 

By Sara DePierre, PA-C, I.B.C.L.C., Pediatric Alliance — Jefferson Hills

 

 

The media is abuzz with various topics regarding breastfeeding as the month of August celebrates Breastfeeding Awareness and calls attention to the worldwide initiative to promote efforts that increase exclusive breastfeeding. You can read about how breastfeeding is a “best sustainable” practice, how it decreases the risk of breast cancer, decreases the risk of some acute infections in infants, how it increases IQ scores and optimal brain development, and the list goes on and on. It seems as though there isn’t an area of child or maternal well-being that isn’t positively affected by breastfeeding. But the positive correlation is just the tip of the iceberg.

Breast milk isn’t just the “healthy” option. Breast milk isn’t just the most sustainable option. Breast milk is not just simply an option. Breast milk is life-saving medicine. In fact, according to a recent study published in The Lancet, breastfeeding has the potential to save the lives of 823,000 children under the age of five worldwide each year.

The article looked at 28 studies on the benefits of breastfeeding and cites some pretty heavy statistics. The study’s authors concluded that cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) could be reduced by 1/3 simply by breastfeeding. In addition, they concluded that in low- to middle-income countries, where diarrhea is a major cause of death, more than half of these children could be saved by breastfeeding.

Sounds great, right? Of course it does, thus the reason why the American Academy of Pediatrics made a formal policy statement regarding breastfeeding. The AAP recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.”

So if these statistics are so enticing and the AAP backs breastfeeding, why is it that only 1-in-5 women in the United States exclusively breastfeeds to the recommended 6-month mark? Could it be that the marketing of breast milk substitutes has been so good it actually has our society convinced that infant formulas are equivalent? In my oh-so-humble opinion, yes, it is.

I don’t think that we as a society see breast milk, as the article in The Lancet puts it, as “a personalized medicine for infants.” Breastfeeding to 12 months of age is not the norm in our society. As a Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Pediatric Physician Assistant, and more importantly, as a mom, it leaves me feeling sad and confused. If I had a conversation as a clinician with a family about a medication that could drastically reduce the risk of childhood infections, some chronic diseases, some types of cancers; a medication that could increase the intelligence of their child and potentially decrease their risk of obesity and diabetes, I have trouble believing that they would decline such a medication. People would be lining up by the hundreds to give their child this type of advantage. But suddenly, when we call it breast milk instead of a medication, it turns into merely an option. And the onus is not just on us moms. Workplaces, policy makers, physicians taking care of both OB and pediatric patients seem to not be sold on the idea of breast milk as life-saving medicine. We need to have a much clearer focus on breastfeeding education, support, and policies that allow for exclusive breast feeding. We need to have better support of breastfeeding in hospitals and by clinicians so that the initiation of breastfeeding for first-time moms is not such a stressful period of time.

I am not ignorant to the fact that in some cases breastfeeding is not an option for moms, for various reasons. And in these cases, formula is a lifesaver in its own right for these babies. I’ve been there myself, struggling to make breastfeeding work with my first baby. I’ve been there with new moms as they cry over delayed lactation or low milk supply. I feel the pain and stress and anxiety that each of these moms goes through because I have felt every bit of it myself. But I have also celebrated with each of these moms as we struggled through these trials together and came out on the other side making it work. I have seen the tears of joy as a breastfeeding mom sees her newborn starting to gain weight exclusively at the breast. I have measured these victories ounce by ounce and pound by pound and my hope is that as articles, like the one published in The Lancet, continue to highlight breast milk as life-saving medicine rather than simply as one way to feed a baby, that our society will have a paradigm shift. My hope is that this topic will not fuel the mommy-wars of formula feeders vs. breast feeders but rather that it will serve its purpose to better define breast milk in terms of its numerous health benefits rather than just by its nutritional merits. That we will start to think of breastfeeding not just as the administration of calories but as the delivery of life-saving medicine.

 

Sara DePierre sees patients at Pediatric Alliance — Jefferson Hills. You can read more from Sara on The PediaBlog here.