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What's Stopping California's Moms From Breastfeeding in the Hospital?


Photo Credit: MitarArt/

This story was reprinted from Berkeley Media Studies Group.

Both the media and major health organizations often trumpet the health benefits of breastfeeding. Babies who are breastfed, they will tell you, are more likely to enjoy better brain development, a lower risk of infections, a stronger heart, and a decreased chance of developing chronic conditions like diabetes or asthma. Groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization consider breastfeeding so beneficial that they recommend moms do so exclusively (giving no other foods or liquids) for the first six months. And the CDC has identified breastfeeding promotion as a key strategy in its goal to improve the health of moms and kids.

It may come as no shock, then, that approximately 90 percent of mothers in California enter the hospital intending to breastfeed. So why is it that by the time they are discharged, only 40 percent are still breastfeeding exclusively? For all the reporting on breastfeeding, what we don't often hear about are challenges that can make it an unrealistic option. In spite of breastfeeding's known ties to health, for many mothers, the social barriers to continued nursing are simply too high -- particularly when the very places where women give birth do little to support the practice.

Many hospitals, especially those in low-income communities and communities of color, lack policies that promote breastfeeding. Fortunately, a new bill by California state Senators Kevin de León and Fran Pavley would help change that. Sponsored by the California WIC Association, the new legislation (SB 402) would require all California hospitals with perinatal units to adopt, by 2020, a set of practices shown to improve breastfeeding rates. The practices include having a written policy on breastfeeding that staff are trained to implement, keeping moms and babies in the same room, showing mothers how to breastfeed (and how to maintain their milk supply if they are away from their babies), and giving infants no formula or other breast milk supplement unless it is medically necessary.

This legislation is critical not only for babies' health but also for the health of their mothers. Breastfeeding can decrease a woman's risk of breast and ovarian cancers, Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. It also helps protect against high cholesterol and heart disease.

When mothers and children are healthy, our whole society benefits. Yet, without policies to make sure breastfeeding is well supported in all communities, women's desire to breastfeed will continue to lose out to obstacles that they, as individuals, have little control over.

Of course, weak hospital policy isn't the only reason why breastfeeding rates remain stubbornly low. Breastfeeding rates continue to drop after women leave the hospital. By the time their children are six months old, less than 22 percent of California moms are still breastfeeding exclusively.

Other barriers include a lack of support in the workplace (which may prevent moms from being able to pump and store milk), aggressive formula marketing (filled with vague and misleading health claims), a dearth of cultural support (which can result in nursing moms being kicked off of airplanes and out of courtroomsretail stores and other public spaces), and a lack of reporting on these barriers.

Still, improving hospital policy to support breastfeeding is one critical step in the right direction. And with our collective health depending on it, the time to act is now.

Those interested in supporting SB 402 can attend a Senate Health Committee hearing on the bill Weds., April 3, at 1:30 p.m., in Room 4203 of the State Capitol in Sacramento.

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