Why the US military encourages mothers to breastfeed

The following blog was originally posted on Detroit Free Press. Cross-posted with permission.

What do these major employers — Home Depot, Mutual of Omaha and the U.S. military — have in common?

All are actively promoting breastfeeding as a best practice for their employees.

Surprised to see the military included?

While there is still plenty of room for improvement, the military has in fact made significant progress in making breastfeeding a top health care priority. The U.S. Department of Defense, the world’s largest employer at 3.2 million employees, is taking steps to ensure that the Surgeons General of each military service promote and support breastfeeding in military hospitals and clinics. In addition, the military has:

• Formed a childhood obesity working group that supports breastfeeding as a means to help children of military personnel maintain a healthy weight

• Required child development centers on military bases to support mothers who want to nurse onsite during the day and to feed their kids with their mother’s pumped breast milk

• Emphasized the activities that U.S. military hospitals and clinics throughout the world should do to promote and support breastfeeding, including the recommendations on breastfeeding from the World Health Organization.

Why is the defense department taking these steps?

Because, according to multiple studies, breastfeeding not only improves the health of babies, but is also associated with decreasing the odds of childhood obesity by up to 30%. And to the military, childhood obesity is a huge problem that increases health care costs within the military while reducing the pool of eligible recruits.

Obesity rates among children and teens have more than tripled since 1970. Being overweight or obese has become the leading medical reason why young adults cannot enlist. Currently, one in four young adults is too overweight to join the military.

In addition, our military leaders recognize the overwhelming evidence in support of exclusive breastfeeding. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and protects babies from infections and illnesses, including diarrhea, ear infections and pneumonia. Mothers who breastfeed have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Based on these statistics, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for about the first 6 months of life. However, fewer than one in seven new mothers are following this guidance. While three out of four mothers in the U.S. start out breastfeeding, only 13% of babies are exclusively breastfed at the end of six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among African-American babies, more than half start out breastfeeding, with 8% exclusively breastfed at six months.

Why are so many mothers giving up early on such a healthy practice? Surveys show that most women want to breastfeed their babies, but many face obstacles that discourage them from continuing. Obstacles include lack of support at the time of birth, transitions back to work, having a quiet and clean place to pump and availability of flexible breaks.

Fortunately, many hospitals and birthing centers in the U.S. are joining the military in establishing baby-friendly practices that give mothers the information, confidence and skills needed to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies.

Corporations are also taking notice. Studies have shown that breastfeeding makes good business sense because it is associated with lower employee absenteeism to care for sick children, lower health care costs and higher employee productivity and morale. Mutual of Omaha found that health care costs for newborns are almost three times lower for babies whose mothers participate in their company’s maternity and lactation program. The Home Depot’s lactation support program at its headquarters has contributed to reduced employee absenteeism, cost savings due to lower absenteeism rates, and high employee satisfaction.

Supporting breastfeeding in the workplace can be challenging, and even the best policies do not work without support from the top. Still, the military and many businesses are taking important steps to support breastfeeding — at least partly out of their own self-interest.

We need to work together to support breastfeeding as one of the most effective measures a mother can take to protect the health of her baby and herself. And, believe it or not, it can also help keep our military strong.

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