Kentucky’s breastfeeding rate is one of the lowest in the U.S.

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By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says breastfeeding is a key strategy to improve public health, and Kentucky ranks 48th among the states in the percentage of mothers who breastfeed.

Studies show that children who have been breastfed have less risk of respiratory infections, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, obesity and asthma. Mothers who breastfeed have a decreased risk of  breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers and heart disease, all conditions that plague Kentucky.

“I don’t think we have any pill, any vitamin, any thing that we can take that can reduce the risk of all these diseases just at once. Like, take this pill once a day and you will be able to decrease all these diseases. There is nothing like that,” Ana Maria Linares, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing, said in a telephone interview. “But we can give that to our babies with exclusive breastfeeding.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be only breastfed for the first six months, with continued breastfeeding alongside complementary foods for at least one year.

“Breast milk is especially adapted to be easily absorbed by the baby gut . . . and produces a specific microorganism in the gut that (will) protect the infant,” Linares said.

The CDC’s 2016 Breastfeeding Report Card says Kentucky’s breastfeeding rates are slowly improving, but remain very low.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sets Healthy People goals in a plan to improve the nation’s health.
Six months after giving birth, 35.3 percent of Kentucky mothers reported  breastfeeding their infants some of the time, with only Louisiana (31.2 percent) and Mississippi (23.9 percent) having lower rates. Only 19 percent of mothers in Kentucky breastfed exclusively after six months; that was much closer to the national figure of 22.3 percent.

Two-thirds of mothers in Kentucky said they tried breastfeeding at least once, indicating a willingness to do so and perhaps a lack of support to continue, the report said. Nationally, 81 percent of mothers tried breastfeeding at least once.

“We are getting there,” said Linares, the UK professor whose research focuses on breastfeeding. “I am really positive about that  because more and more mothers are willing to breastfeed now, at least give it a try. And that is a lot to say because before they wouldn’t even consider it.”

Rates for Kentucky mothers who have breastfed their infant for six months has improved by almost 34 percent since the CDC started publishing these report cards in 2007, up from 26.4 percent. And improved 153 percent for Kentucky mothers who breastfed exclusively for six months, from 7.5 percent. Data from the 2007 report came from 2004.

Linares said Kentucky is working to teach health-care providers about the importance of breastfeeding and has increased its pre-natal education about breastfeeding. The state offers a peer-counseling program that puts mothers who have had a good breastfeeding experience in touch with new breastfeeding mothers.

“The peer counselor program is one of the most important programs in the state,” because it provides support for mothers not only to start breastfeeding, but to also maintain it, Linares said.

The state is also working to get hospitals certified as “Baby Friendly,” which, among other requirements, allows the mother and baby to have “skin-to-skin” contact for at least two hours, with has been proven to prompt breastfeeding.

Kentucky has three such hospitals: Norton Women’s and Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Northern Kentucky, and University of Kentucky Hospital in Lexington.

Linaes said that Kentucky has work to do on its societal views of breastfeeding, because some mothers still feel that they don’t have enough support to do it, especially in public places. Kentucky has had a law since 2006 that allows mothers to breastfeed anywhere.

“We need to have a law that protects mothers so that they can have maternity leave, to stay home for at least one month so that they can establish breastfeeding,” Linares said, adding that six months would be preferable.

Linares said the U.S. is one of only three developed countries that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, which she said creates a situation which poses a question for mothers: “Should I work or should I breastfeed my baby?” She cited a study indicating if 90 percent of U.S. mothers were able to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, it would save the country “billions of dollars” and “many lives.”
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