By Keri Collins Lewis
MSU Ag Communications
Parents can help their children establish healthy food habits long before their toddlers spit out vegetables and beg for cookies
David Buys, health specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said improving the health of Mississippians begins with healthy choices from infancy, through childhood and into adulthood.
“From the American Academy of Pediatrics to the World Health Organization, human milk is considered to be the most nutritious food for babies, whether they are full-term or premature,” Buys said. “In recognition of the significant health benefits of breast milk, breastfeeding rates have been steadily rising in the United States, as documented by the Centers for Disease Control.”
Most professional health care organizations and academies recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life. After that, these experts recommend continued breastfeeding with complementary foods until a child is 12 months old or as long as both mother and baby are comfortable with extended nursing.
Breastfeeding advocates have research-based reasons for recommending the practice.
“The health benefits include a lower likelihood of ear and respiratory infections,” Buys said. “Some studies indicate decreased rates of sudden infant death syndrome and a reduction of major diseases later in life, such as type 1 and type 2 diabetes, asthma and even some forms of cancer.”
Breastfeeding may protect children against becoming overweight and obese, and promote better performance on intelligence tests later in life.
Buys said breastfeeding benefits moms too.
“In addition to several immediate, postpartum physical benefits to the mother, most breastfeeding women experience a quicker return to prepregnancy weight,” Buys said. “Studies show a decreased risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and possibly osteoporosis.”
Yet even with all of these health benefits, the annual CDC Breastfeeding Report Card shows breastfeeding rates in Mississippi are among the lowest in the nation.
Linda McGrath of Starkville has been certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners and has been affiliated with the La Leche League since 1976. La Leche League is an international nonprofit organization devoted to helping mothers worldwide to breastfeed through peer support, encouragement, information and education.
“We work to promote a better understanding of breastfeeding as an important element in the healthy development of the baby and mother,” McGrath said. “For many women, it’s a challenge to overcome the lack of support they feel, so our focus during August, which is National Breastfeeding Month, is on developing a breastfeeding support team.”
McGrath said encouragement from family, friends, health care practitioners, colleagues and the community plays an important role in a mother’s decision to breastfeed and to persist in the practice.
“Without a family tradition of breastfeeding as the healthiest infant feeding practice, mothers are questioned about why they are choosing to breastfeed,” McGrath said. “Women who work may struggle to find the time and an appropriate place to express milk and thereby maintain breastfeeding. Employers and communities can do a lot to make it easier for moms to breastfeed.”
Prenatal classes can help educate mothers about the maternal benefits of breastfeeding as well as the many health benefits to their babies, while also increasing mothers’ confidence in their ability to breastfeed.
“By talking to other mothers who have experience breastfeeding, new moms can access the support and education they need to overcome common misconceptions about breastfeeding,” she said. “They also have someone to talk to about their fears, concerns, embarrassment or questions.”
Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers can attend breastfeeding classes through their local health department or hospital and through the La Leche League. The La Leche League has seven groups in Mississippi and contact information can be found online at http://www.lllalmsla.org/lll-groups/mississippi-groups.
McGrath said the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC, also offers a breastfeeding support program that was implemented in 1997.
“Breastfeeding mothers enrolled in the WIC program have access to peer counselors and other program benefits, such as breast pumps and an enhanced food package if they breastfeed exclusively,” she said. “They’re also eligible to participate in WIC longer than mothers who don’t breastfeed.”