Young mother feeding her baby in the park.
Young mother feeding her baby in the park. (iStock)

Although many women want to breastfeed and understand breastmilk is the healthiest choice for their baby, it is important for moms to have a strong social and professional network, says University of Louisville School of Public Health and Information Sciences maternal and child health assistant professor Anne Baber Wallis, PhD, MHS.

During World Breastfeeding Week, organized by the World Alliance on Breastfeeding Action (WABA), and celebrated Aug. 1-7, Wallis shares insights from her research conducted in the United States, Romania, India, and West Africa.

Experts agree breastmilk is the optimal food for newborns, with health advantages for both the baby and mother. Researchers also have found that women are more likely to breastfeed if infants are put to the breast within one hour of birth. But, Wallis says although 90 percent of Romanian women start breastfeeding immediately, many stop within a few weeks because of challenges they face when returning to work or because they lack the support of partners and family.

In the United States, Wallis has worked closely with Healthy Start initiatives in three states, all with ties to the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs that encourage low-income women to breastfeed. She says barriers to breastfeeding are significant for women in this population.

“Rates vary significantly by state, but in general, women in the United States who are better educated and have higher incomes are more likely to breastfeed,” Wallis said. “They also have more positive attitudes and higher levels of knowledge about the benefits of breastfeeding. Other important factors are prenatal education, access to lactation consultants and support groups, as well as hospital practices.”

Wallis says she would like to see more UNICEF-certified Baby Friendly hospitals – that is, hospitals that do not accept free or low-cost products from infant formula companies and are staffed with certified lactation consultants. Kentucky only has three UNICEF-certified Baby Friendly hospitals. She says this does not fare well for the Commonwealth, which already falls behind the national percentage of breastfed babies with 66 percent of infants breastfed from birth compared to 80 percent nationally. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding supplemented by other foods up to two years or beyond.

In celebration of World Breastfeeding Week, Louisville Metro WIC will host a public event on Aug. 5 from noon to 2 p.m. at the Family Health Centers, Second Floor, 834 E. Broadway. The event will include children’s activities, door prizes, snacks and free nursing bra giveaways.