Breastfeeding in the United States: How's it going?
Updated: May 6, 2020
Current United States statistics from the CDC (2018) tell us that 83.2% of women initiate breastfeeding (Awesome!). At 6 months, 57.6% are still breastfeeding and at 12 months, only 35.9% are breastfeeding.
While I realize that all women have different plans and goals (all of which are important and should be celebrated!), this still seems like a sharp drop off given that many moms I know would like to breastfeed for at least a year.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding, followed by the addition of complementary foods starting at about 6 months with the continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.
Learn more here.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends mothers worldwide to exclusively breastfeed infants for the child's first six months to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Thereafter, they should be given nutritious complementary foods and continue breastfeeding up to the age of two years or beyond.
Learn more here.
Why do both groups take such a strong stance on this? Because the evidence shows that breastfeeding provides numerous benefits for babies and their mothers.
Breastfed babies have a lower risk of many childhood and even lifelong illnesses such as: ear infections, gastroenteritis, respiratory tract infections, asthma, allergies, obesity, childhood leukemia, diabetes, and SIDS.
Women who breastfeed have a lower risk for breast and ovarian cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and some types of cardiovascular disease. The amount of risk reduction for these is directly related to the length of time spent breastfeeding - the longer the breastfeeding duration, the greater the reduction in risk! Mothers who are successful in breastfeeding are also at a lesser risk for suffering from postpartum depression.
This is a big deal. We are failing mothers by not providing the support they need to be successful and it’s affecting their health as well as their babies.
I don’t say any of this to make women feel guilty. Instead, the way I interpret these statistics is that many women want to breastfeed and start out doing so. But, by 6 and 12 months, those numbers have dropped dramatically, even when all the evidence and recommendations tell us that we should still be breastfeeding. So what’s happening during that time? I don’t think it’s that half of all women have just decided that they don’t want to breastfeed anymore because they don’t think it’s what’s best for them or their babies!
Breastfeeding is hard, it’s not something we automatically know how to do. Getting through the first month can be really hard, in fact one of the most common times for a mother to stop breastfeeding is between days 3-7 after birth. Think of what an incredibly vulnerable time this is - you’ve got a new baby at home that you’re still learning how to care for, you’re still recovering from birth, you probably haven’t slept well in days, and now you’ve got questions about breastfeeding but no one to ask!
Typically breastfeeding gets much easier after the first 6 weeks or so, but then many women go back to work which introduces a whole new set of challenges for breastfeeding families. All of this can be managed with proper guidance and support, but without the right support at the right times, it’s easy for breastfeeding to go sideways.
There were many years in our country where bottle feeding was the cultural norm, as a result, it’s not always easy for our own moms, grandmas, aunts or sisters to help us. Additionally, there are many health professionals that haven’t received good breastfeeding education which can make the advice they give conflict with best breastfeeding practices. To top it all off, we live in a culture that really doesn’t understand breastfeeding or the ways we should be supporting new mothers and babies. Uffda!
Obviously we have a long way to go to solve all of these problems as a society. It’s not going to happen overnight.
So what can YOU do about this?
Educate yourself, know what breastfeeding is supposed to be like and so you can identify when things might not be going right and get help. This will also help you to identify when some advice you’ve been given might not be quite accurate and so you can get another opinion.
Advocate for yourself and your baby. You are in charge of you and your baby’s health. Not doctors, nurses, or your well-meaning family members! If something doesn’t feel right, research it and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.
Seek help from qualified and knowledgeable resources. There are many organizations trying to promote and protect breastfeeding, here are a few to get you started:
Support group organizations:
Look into other local groups such as those sponsored by hospitals or public health agencies
Advocacy groups and groups that have good resources:
If you’re a huge nerd and find stats interesting, you can check out all the breastfeeding stats, even separated by state, here: https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/reportcard.htm