By Isaac Itman
Her mother back in Mexico did not breastfeed her or her siblings for long, but Josefina Guillén, 39, says she always knew breastfeeding was best for a healthy baby.
"Breastfeeding was not encouraged in my family," she said. "After only weeks of breastfeeding us, my mother started to hesitate because she wasn't sure we were getting enough milk and therefore she decided to use formula."
But Guillén, who is a chemical engineer and works for a pharmaceutical laboratory in Chicago, was determined to breastfeed and armed herself by attending one of the many supports groups coordinated by La Leche League International (LLI), a non-profit organization founded by seven mothers in 1956, which now has chapters across the United States and in more than sixty other countries.
When Guillén got pregnant, her husband's aunt, who is very involved with La Leche in Mexico, sent her plenty of information about breastfeeding and located a support group for her in Chicago, which she began attending when she was seven months pregnant.
Guillén said the meetings were useful.
"It was very positive to receive tips on how to breastfeed, especially when I went back to work and had to pump milk," she said. "Firstly, many women don't breastfeed because of a lack of information and second, sometimes they think it is inconvenient and cumbersome and they are not aware of all the advantages of breastfeeding for the health of the baby."
Why World Breastfeeding Week?
This year, the World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7, has the theme, "Breastfeeding: The 1st Hour", highlighting that breastfeeding in the first hour of life and exclusive breastfeeding for six months can save more than one million babies.
According to a qualitative research study conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), a history of breastfeeding in developed countries was linked with a decrease in the risk of many diseases and conditions, including asthma and respiratory problems, diabetes, obesity, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and childhood leukemia, among others. Furthermore, the report demonstrates that nursing was beneficial for the mother as it was connected to a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Yet, society's pressures and the push for convenience at all costs sometimes trump the good intentions.
"Awareness of breastfeeding has increased but when the mother puts the baby to her breast she has questions and sometimes she has a problem", said Rebecca Magalhaes, director of external relations and advocacy of LLI. "We feel that one of the ways in which women can be helped is by supporting them."
Magalhaes said LLI's support includes information, phone calls, home visits and support group meetings. She said society doesn't always help there still are popular prejudices regarding breast milk nutrition.
"The mother is trying to breastfeed and her mother in-law might say ‘oh my gosh, the baby is crying so much, your milk must be weak or you must not have enough fat in your milk,'" she said. "Those kinds of messages are still very much out there."
A Culture of Breastfeeding
Cultural and language barriers are also significant for understanding the concerns and worries of immigrant mothers, so La Leche is trying to reach Spanish-speaking mothers in the United States through a Spanish support line staffed with trained lactation consultants.
María del Mar Mazza, global Hispanic community liaison of La Leche, said that based on her professional experience, breastfeeding awareness among Latino mothers seems to have increased, as have the number of calls the newly minted Spanish hotline receives.
According to Mazza, even women who used to nurse their babies back in their native countries stop doing so when they get to America. They feel embarrassed about nursing in public and may even perceive formula as a status symbol, if they couldn't afford it back home.
"They stop nursing once they get here because there are many factors that made them think formula is better," she said. "It is what they see in advertisements and, even when they go to the hospital, they get free formula samples."
LLI also provides support groups conducted in Spanish. Mazza, who has also been an LLI support group leader, said that for Latino women, their partner's opinion is essential.
Support groups are held once a month and Guillén has attended support groups for ten months in Spanish and English with her husband.
"Fathers and partners are invited to attend the support groups to learn about breastfeeding, breast milk supply and properties and how to encourage the mother through the whole process," Guillén said.
"My husband went with me to all the support group sessions," she said. "It is important to receive support and help from the father. It is also educational for them."
Although her baby is already 10-months-old, she believes breastfeeding is soothing and healing when he is uncomfortable.
"If my baby has an earache or is not feeling well, breastfeeding is the best medicine for him," she said.
In 2001 the World Health Organization (WHO) passed a resolution recommending that infants under six months of age be fed exclusively on breast milk, in part to protect them from malnutrition, pneumonia and waterborne diseases.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding in the strongest terms:
"Exclusive breastfeeding is ideal nutrition and sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first 6 months after birth. Infants weaned before 12 months of age should not receive cow's milk feedings but should receive iron-fortified infant formula. Gradual introduction of iron-enriched solid foods in the second half of the first year should complement the breast milk diet. It is recommended that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mutually desired."
HIV infected mothers, however, are advised not to breastfeed their babies if they have safe alternatives, as it's the case in the U.S., because HIV may be transmitted from a nursing mother to her infant.
Studies have suggested that breastfeeding introduces an additional risk of HIV transmission of approximately 10 to 14 percent among women with chronic HIV infection. In developing countries, an estimated one-third to one-half of all HIV infections are transmitted through breastfeeding.
As recommended by most pediatricians, Guillén introduced solids in her baby's diet after he turned six months old but she stills breastfeeds at night.
"Based on my experience, if I become pregnant again I am sure I will be able to nurse for a longer time because I have more information now," she said. "I'll do it again just to be close to the baby, and see how he enjoys it and feels protected," she said.
Isaac Itman is a writer for the OMHRC. Comments? E-mail: Isaac Itman
La Leche League International
The National Women's Health Information Center
United States Breastfeeding Committee
National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy
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