Marybeth Merritt: A key factor in a better world

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GREAT BARRINGTON >> In September 2015, U.N. world leaders committed to 17 goals aimed at ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity. Together, they form the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 , which aim to ensure that we all have a decent life free of poverty, opportunities to grow and learn, to be healthy and prosper. Breastfeeding is a key element.

Additionally, the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion's Healthy People 2020 initiative, national health priorities include stronger breastfeeding goals, in recognition of the breastfeeding's important health benefits for infants, children and mothers.

We all have a part to play in achieving these goals . The World Breastfeeding Week 2016 (August 1-7) theme celebrates breastfeeding as a key element in well-being from the start of life, as a measure of respect for families and children, and as a contribution to improving our shared world. Breastfeeding weaves into the tapestry of sustainability on the local and global level in a variety of ways: from nutrition and food security, to health and well-being, to social and economic empowerment and having a healthy planet to continue existence.

Breastfeeding, especially exclusive breastfeeding for the first six to 12 months of an infant's life, is ideal for both infant and mother, imparting important health and protective factors to both, physically and emotionally.

Breastfeeding is a natural and low-cost way of feeding babies and children. It does not burden household budgets, as does the cost of infant formula, and is a certain means of food security for infants.

Breast milk offers high quality nutrients and adequate energy for infants. It can help prevent hunger, undernutrition and obesity. Depending on nursing duration, research shows we can expect significant reductions in the incidence of ear infections, gastrointestinal infections, and lower respiratory tract diseases in babies and children who are breastfed. Later on in infancy, breastfeeding can significantly contribute to mental and cognitive development, supporting early learning and future success.

Nursing also contributes to health and well-being of mothers by helping their bodies return to pre-pregnancy condition and providing protection against certain breast cancers.

On the job, breastfeeding women who are supported by their employers are more productive and loyal. Decent jobs should cater to the needs of nursing mothers so they can balance their child's nutrition needs while contributing to the economic life of their family.

Public health priority

Breastfeeding practices must be protected, promoted and supported for the advantages and security it confers, but in particular among poor and vulnerable groups. Massachusetts does not specifically support work-site breastfeeding, though the federal government does protect nursing mothers by requiring reasonable breaks and private space, other than a bathroom, for pumping breast milk.

In Massachusetts, breastfeeding is considered a public health priority, and we have work to do. For some women nursing their baby is a challenge due to pressure to get back to work or a lack of support from family or the community, and in this regard, paid family leave must be part of the solution. As a community, if we provide safe and judgment-free environments for breastfeeding, we increase the likelihood that women will choose this practice to help their child get a healthy start in life.

While it may not be everyone's choice, and though some women are unable to nurse their children for health or work-related pressures, through education, support and understanding, breastfeeding will become the norm and our entire community will benefit.

At Community Health Programs, our Family Services program, which also serves as the South County site for the WIC nutrition program for pregnant and nursing women, provides support for breastfeeding and for their baby's healthy start in life. CHP offers breastfeeding support groups for prenatal and postpartum women, individual lactation counseling, follow-up phone calls and printed information in English and Spanish, along with other parent education programs. These services are free and available to the public.

We are so fortunate in the southern Berkshires to have Fairview Hospital, a designated "baby-friendly hospital," one of just eight in the Massachusetts, as our partner in promoting breastfeeding instead of baby formula at birth, unless medically indicated. And through a recent grant initiative, CHP is developing a program providing in-person visits with the mother-baby duo within the first week of life, to help ensure they get off to a good start.

MaryElizabeth Merritt, Ph.D., CLC, is a breastfeeding peer counselor at Community Health Programs Families Services program in Great Barrington.


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