For the first time, new federal guidelines issued this week include recommendations for breastfeeding.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services recommends infants be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life and should continue through at least the first year or “longer if desired.”
But what’s left unsaid are the barriers women face to breastfeeding — such as stigma and lack of familial or community support, says Carrie Pawlowski, a lactation consultant at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These challenges are especially difficult during a pandemic, she says.
Many women are under a lot of pressure to juggle work and child care, like frontline workers who are mothers and at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. Isolation from other mothers may negatively impact those who are learning to breastfeed, she says, considering it can be very hard to breastfeed at times.
Hurdles in the workplace include having an employer who is not supportive of breastfeeding or not having time in the workday to pump.
Laws now require workplaces to provide a place that’s not a bathroom for mothers to pump and time for moms to express milk. Lactation consultants like Pawlowski are covered by insurance.
But on a federal level, Pawlowski says education about breastfeeding needs to start early on in schools and more support groups need to be implemented.
With or without a pandemic, Pawlowski says more education is needed to help new moms with the process. She advises new moms to seek out Facebook groups for support.
Breastfeeding is important because it’s considered the “ideal” nutrition for babies, she says. Breast milk contains loads of antibodies to help protect against viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says breastfeeding can be beneficial for both the mom and the baby’s health.
Despite known health benefits, the CDC estimates Black infants are less likely to be breastfed than white infants. A CDC study from 2015 proved the disparity was a result of racial inequity.
Researchers found Black moms were more likely to be under the poverty level, receive Women, Infants, & Children Nutrition Program benefits and have less education compared to white women.
Both Pawlowski and the CDC say Black moms also lack support and maternity care from families, hospitals and workplaces. To address the racial disparity in breastfeeding, the CDC suggests improving education and maternity care while also providing stronger peer support for Black mothers.
The new federal guidelines may be hard for mothers who can’t breastfeed for certain reasons such as a medical condition or a medication they take. Pawlowski says her job as a lactation consultant means helping these moms navigate the process.
She hopes the new recommendations will help change perceptions and stigma around breastfeeding, including making breastfeeding in public “more normal for everybody.”
Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.