National Breastfeeding Month: How Social Workers Can Help Reduce Disparities
After having a baby, every new mother has to make important decisions about infant nutrition. Whether or not she chooses to breastfeed, having access to information about her options is key to making an informed and appropriate decision for her health and lifestyle.
August is National Breastfeeding Month; a time to highlight how important it is for women to have the opportunity to learn about breastfeeding and infant nutrition. The awareness campaign focuses on providing answers to questions that mothers might have about the benefits of both breastfeeding and formula, as well as the challenges or drawbacks posed by each option.
Breastfeeding awareness is not only an important health issue; it also raises questions of social justice. Studies have shownthat certain socioeconomic and social groups may not be as informed about the benefits of breastfeeding or how it can fit into their lives. Concerns about pumping at work or maintaining a schedule can impact certain groups of women more than others, especially women who are financially unable to take time off of work after having a baby.
Social workers can act as a valuable asset to new mothers who are trying to learn more about breastfeeding and decide what makes the most sense for their schedule and child. They also play an important role in combating the inequalities that may limit the ability of certain groups to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding: Understanding the Benefits
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfeeding can offer health benefits to both mother and baby. For the child, it can reduce the risk of colds, allergies and infections, as well as bacterial meningitis, sudden infant death syndrome, cancer, diabetes, obesity and other health issues. For the mother, it can lower the risk of several types of cancer, as well as help with post-pregnancy weight loss.
It’s important to recognize that choosing to breastfeed or formula feed is a personal decision that depends on many different factors. Formula is a safe and effective way for women who decide that breastfeeding is not something they can or want to do.
Social Justice and Breastfeeding
Socioeconomic status and race play a large role in access to information about breastfeeding and access to the time and space to breastfeed. According to a National Immunization Survey study, women who are young, black, poor or less educated make up the group of women who are least likely to breastfeed. Access to information about breastfeeding is essential to helping women learn about their options. For example, one concern that a mother might have is wondering if she is producing enough milk for her baby. Women educated on breastfeeding, or ones with access to a lactation specialist, will know that milk supplies can be rebuilt by allowing the baby to suckle. Without that knowledge, a woman might end up switching to formula simply because she doesn’t understand how her body works. For low-income women,WIC provides free formula and nutrition information on formula, which may reduce the chances of a woman exploring breastfeeding as an option.
One obvious issue when it comes to breastfeeding is figuring out a way to pump at work. Many low-income jobs are not covered by Family and Medical Leave Act provisions, which require employers to provide space for women to pump. Women in low-income jobs are also more likely to work longer hours to be able to support their families at their pay rate and may return to work earlier.
As far as support and information, access to support groups and lactation specialists can be vital to learning about breastfeeding. Without access to those groups, women may not know enough about breastfeeding to consider it an option.
Social Workers and Breastfeeding
Social workers occupy a unique position in the community and can act as a sounding board for concerns that women have about breastfeeding. It’s important that social workers do not push women into breastfeeding or using formula, but rather act as a knowledgeable source for where women can go to access information. This is a conversation that can take place while a woman is pregnant.
Groups like La Leche League, a breastfeeding support group that offers group meetings, online support, and sometimes hospital and home visits, can be an excellent source of information and support. Social workers can also offer information on lactation specialists and counseling for those who are more interested in one-on-one help. For low-income women, WIC does offer some limited breastfeeding counseling services. These programs vary by location, but it’s important to connect with organizations in your area that have similar educational philosophies.
There are also options like the Making It Work Toolkit, which is an online tool that offers resources and plans for women who are returning to work. It offers specific information about pumping and scheduling, and also offers several other toolkits for families and employers. Online tools are an easy and accessible way for women to learn about breastfeeding.
National Breastfeeding Month is about sparking a conversation to ensure that women have the knowledge and support that they need. It’s important that women have the ability to make informed decisions about what is right for themselves and their babies.