Health officials pushing for more breastfeeding in poor communities

Public health officials and nutrition experts are highlighting efforts to address low breastfeeding rates in black communities, saying too few black mothers are taking advantage of the benefits that breastfeeding offers their babies.

The Griffin Inaugural Conference on Breastfeeding brought together more than 100 breastfeeding peer counselors, lactation consultants, nurses, physicians, dietitians, and community health workers this week at Rush University Medical Center.

One of the key topics was the comparatively small number of black mothers, particularly those with low incomes, who choose to breast feed their infants. 

Studies show that breastfeeding is crucial to health throughout the lifespan, as it helps reduce the risk for infection, diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases.

“The first vaccination is the first swallow of breast milk,” says Dr. Terry Mason, commissioner of the city's Department of Public Health.  “This is the first prevention effort that must take place.”

Last year almost half of the more than 7000 black infants in Chicago whose mothers are in the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC),  were not breastfed, Illinois’ Department of Human Services statistics show. 

That’s nearly 20 percent less than the city average for participants in WIC, a program that offers nutrition counseling and healthy supplemental foods.

The World Health Organization recommends that children be breastfed at least until the age of two because breast milk is key to their growth and development.

Jacqueline Wroten, another health department official, says breastfeeding should be a mother’s primary choice, and that formula substitutes should only be used in cases where health complications make breastfeeding unsafe.

Working to raise breastfeeding rates and eliminate disparities might conflict with the interests of the infant formula industry, Mason says. 

However, getting more mothers to start breastfeeding makes that battle worthwhile, he says.

Many hospitals lack the resources to help mothers understand the benefits of breastfeeding and how to overcome any initial unease they may feel, Mason says.  Healthcare providers need more funding to do the simple things, like ensuring that there are pre-natal lactation counselors at every hospital.

Mason also argues that breastfeeding is scarcely visible in the media.

“We have to figure out how to get this mainstream,” says Mason. “The media would rather talk about babies dying in ICU than [discuss] breastfeeding them.”

Dr. Myrtis Sullivan, the associate director of Family Health with the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Health and Prevention division, says a lack of information is also to blame.

There are myths in the black community, she says, that promote ideas that breastfeeding is painful, deforms or enlarges breasts and is “nasty.”

Sullivan says that dispelling common myths is all the more difficult because media and mass culture messages related to breastfeeding are not prevalent in black communities.