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