Soon-to-be mothers who show an interest in breastfeeding are often asked this question, repeatedly, before their babies are even delivered. Despite efforts to educate women about the health benefits of breastfeeding for mother and baby, medical practitioners show a surprising tendency to be non-committal on the issue when directly advising their patients. Doctors seem to have no problem telling patients to eat less fat and sodium, quit smoking, exercise, and to make a variety of other lifestyle changes to improve their physical and mental well-being. Given the strong favorable opinion of breastfeeding by the world’s collective medical community, it is both curious and disturbing that many individual doctors seem relatively uninterested in making a stronger case for new mothers to nurse their babies. This problem is so great, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recently made a statement about the necessity for hospitals to establish better maternity care practices that support nursing mothers.
The outdated opinion that formula is equitable to breast milk is no longer shared by medical and nutritional authorities. Educational materials supporting the practice of breastfeeding are being widely distributed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and many other respected authorities in nutrition and medicine. If you are a pregnant woman going only by what you’ve read and researched, it seems that the standard medical opinion should provide a supportive environment for women dedicated to breastfeeding.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead of encouraging new mothers to nurse their babies, medical professionals seem all too eager to accept a woman’s surrender to formula feeding. This passive discouragement offered by most healthcare providers is nothing less than a direct contradiction to the findings of current research.
When an expectant mother tells her friends and family that she intends to breastfeed her child, it’s as though she has announced her plan to run a marathon. At first, most of those people will praise her for her decision. As time goes on, more and more of those same people will make a point of reminding her that she doesn’t actually have to do it, giving her every “supportive” opportunity to change her mind. New mothers are often told that breastfeeding is painful, that their breasts are not the right size to produce enough milk, and many other negative statements about breastfeeding that simply aren’t true.
By the time that a previously decisive mother-to-be gets a lukewarm response from her doctor about her concerns, she may be ready to give up on breastfeeding before she has even given it a try.
Should she manage to shut out the negative messages about nursing her baby, nurses that are supposed to help her and the baby after delivery might cause additional problems due to the widespread assumption that the baby will be bottle-fed. “Nipple confusion” can happen as a result of pacifier or bottle use in the hospital nursery, making it harder for the infant to learn to latch on to the mother’s breast. A lack of knowledge on the part of hospital staff can leave a new mother’s questions either unanswered, or answered incorrectly. Most women and infants are completely able to participate in breastfeeding, despite many medical conditions that may affect either of them. However, myths abound about breast size, milk supply, and a variety of other common superstitions that can lead many women to believe that breastfeeding their child is a risky endeavor.
Better patient education about breastfeeding is required on the part of medical professionals. Without it, more generations of children will be raised exclusively on formula. Without the benefits of a natural diet of breast milk, children are at greater risk for a variety of health problems, including asthma, allergies, ear infections, diarrhea, and physiological problems associated with malnutrition. Women who give birth and do not breastfeed their children are also twice as likely to experience post-partum and other forms of depression. Doctors are in a position to stem the tide of health problems related to formula-only feeding. Unless an effort is made to educate expectant mothers, women are thrown into the fray of a world where formula feeding and its health risks have become an unnecessary standard.
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