Hannah Nelson nursed her son John as soon as she could after his birth on Tuesday at Regional Medical Center.
“It’s a great bonding experience and it’s so much better for him,” the Anniston mother said as she cradled John in her arms while sitting in an RMC bed on Thursday. “It helps his immune system.”
According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more women are breastfeeding in the U.S. overall, but Alabama still trails the national average. Also, many women across the country and the state stop breastfeeding too soon, the report shows. It’s an issue some hospitals such as RMC in Anniston have worked to address in recent years, given that many medical experts say that breastfeeding offers a variety of health benefits to babies, from stronger immune systems and better physical and mental development to lower risks of sickness.
The report shows that 83.2 percent of babies born in the U.S. in 2015 were breastfeed. Still, only 35.9 percent of those babies were still nursing after 12 months.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months and thereafter for as long as the mother and baby desire. The World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding up to 2 years old or beyond.
For Alabama, 68.1 percent of babies born in 2015 breastfed. And only 35.9 percent of those babies were still breastfeeding after 12 months, the report states.
RMC became the first accredited baby-friendly Alabama hospital in 2011 to address the lower rates of breastfeeding in the state. The baby-friendly initiative is a program of the World Health Organization. The program encourages policies that provide new mothers with as much education as possible on the benefits of breastfeeding.
“We help educate the moms before delivery and we encourage prenatal classes,” said Jennifer Gallahar, a registered nurse and lactation consultant at RMC. “We make sure they know how to latch the baby on properly and how to maintain breastfeeding if they’re separated, like if the baby is sick in the hospital.”
Lynn Watson, director of obstetrics at RMC, said the push to encourage more women to breastfeed is needed because breast milk provides many health benefits to babies.
“Breast milk is a live fluid, so it has antibodies that protect the gut,” Watson said. “Formula doesn’t have that because it’s not live, it’s manmade.”
The education push appears to have paid off. According to RMC, of the 1,845 new mothers it had in 2017, 81 percent breastfed their babies — a rate more in line with the national average.
Dr. Lewis Doggett, an Anniston pediatrician who helped push for RMC to earn its baby-friendly status, said the reasons why women don’t breastfeed are mainly cultural, meaning the mothers came from families that used formula instead.
“The trend was not to breastfeed and instead use formula,” Doggett said. “Becoming baby-friendly, we’ve really changed the culture here ... now breastfeeding is the go-to method.”
Dr. DeAnne Jackson, a pediatrician who oversees the newborn nursery at UAB Hospital, said her hospital is also baby-friendly and has seen gains in the number of women who breastfeed in recent years.
“The health benefits are just so great for the baby and the mom,” Jackson said. “There’s a decreased risk of infection, diabetes and obesity with the baby ... with the mom there’s a decreased risk of breast cancer and increased weight loss after delivery.”
Jackson said she thinks women stop breastfeeding too soon in part because of cultural pressures.
“Some of the policies in some workplaces for breastfeeding aren’t that great,” Jackson said. “And some are from families that didn’t breastfeed ... you need support from family and everyone around you.”
Doggett said some women stop breastfeeding because they’re nervous their babies are being underfed.
“Their baby is feeding frequently and they don’t think the baby is getting enough,” Doggett said. “We’re trying hard before they go home to let them know what is a proper supply of breastmilk for a baby.”
Nelson said she breastfed her first child for two years and intends to do the same for her newborn.
“It was great for him,” Nelson said of her first child. “He had no ear infections and he wasn’t sick at all.”