Breastmilk for better health

The other day I met phar­macy pro­fessor Roger Edwards, whose research focuses on the health ben­e­fits of breast­feeding. Edwards, who has a back­ground in policy and improve­ment in public health, became inter­ested in the area when he saw his wife struggle to fight soci­etal and hos­pital norms in her deter­mi­na­tion to breast feed the first of their three chil­dren. When he hit the books, he learned that her expe­ri­ence was not abnormal. At most 15% of mothers breast­feed in this country for the first six months, despite mounting evi­dence that doing so can have mas­sive health ben­e­fits for both mothers and their children.

But mothers are not to blame. “Hos­pital mater­nity prac­tices fall short,” said Edwards. “Health pro­fes­sionals and hos­pital don’t nec­es­sarily sup­port  mothers breast feeding babies.” In other coun­tries, for example, babies don’t imme­di­ately go to a nursery to allow mothers to rest. Instead, they stay in the room with the mother so she can learn things like feeding cues and the impor­tance of skin-​​to-​​skin con­tact in ini­ti­ating breastfeeding.

The most inter­esting take­away from my meeting with Edwards though, was the sig­nif­i­cance that improving these prac­tices could have on our society. Everyone is talking about health­care these days and trying to design sys­tems and approaches that better deal with our bur­geoning needs. But our bodies already con­tain an incred­ible anti­dote to many of the country’s most pro­lific health prob­lems. From cancer to dia­betes to obe­sity, breast milk and breast­feeding have sig­nif­i­cant odds of improving a child’s long term health.

These are non-​​trivial effects for the baby,” said Edwards. “In addi­tion to that you talk about breast cancer, ovarian cancer and type 2 dia­betes effects on the mother. If you had any other inter­ven­tion having that kind of impact on these con­di­tions, it would be head­line making. And yet we know this already and it doesn’t happen. A lot of it doesn’t happen because we’re just not com­fort­able talking about these things. We also want to be careful not to put pres­sure on mothers to do it. It isn’t their fault. We as a society need to take responsibility.”

Photo: blmurch, “Mother and Chil­dren” November 26, 2006 via Flickr, Cre­ative Com­mons Attribution