New mothers find support to forgo formula

Sunday, July 20, 2008

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Amelia Grace Seever seems older than 8 months. She's a roly-poly little girl who crawls all over and pulls herself up to stand on occasion, not letting the business at hand distract her from her exploration.

A breast-feeding support group, after all, isn't the most interesting thing for a baby. But for Amelia Grace's mother, Heather Seever, this group, begun recently by the St. Joseph/Buchanan County Health Department, has a lot to offer.

"I wanted to nurse my daughter because I felt it was the healthiest thing, but I didn't know where to turn," Seever said. "It's one thing to read books, but it's another to have support from other women who are going through the same things."

Things like sometimes needing to nurse in public or facing the opinions of family members who don't understand why a new mother hasn't taken the sometimes more socially acceptable route of feeding her baby with formula. Although breast-feeding has been the norm throughout most of history, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that today only 11 percent of American women feed their babies exclusively with breast milk for the first six months -- a trend the Health Department hopes to change on a local level.

"A lot of moms choose not to breast-feed because they don't see other mothers doing it," said Stephanie Malita, an administrative aide with the Health Department. "It just isn't the norm. But it should be; it is the most normal thing when it comes to feeding an infant."

The breast-feeding program the Health Department has started encourages women to give their babies breast milk exclusively for the first six months. The program is funded by a CDC grant meant to be used for obesity prevention, which highlights one of the health benefits of breast-feeding: Studies show children who are breast-fed are less likely to be obese later in life than children fed with formula.

Many other health benefits have been linked to breast milk, as well. It is the most complete form of nutrition for infants, and most babies digest it more easily than they do formula, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, antibodies in breast milk protect babies against a wide range of infectious diseases.

Breast-feeding also is beneficial for mothers in a number of ways, including in that it burns a significant number of calories, thereby helping women shed pregnancy pounds; helps the uterus return to its original size; and delays the return of a normal ovulation cycle. In addition, some studies indicate breast-feeding reduces a woman's risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Many women forgo these benefits, of course, because of the obstacles they face.

"I try to tell everyone up front that it's not the easiest thing to do," says Marileen Kastl, a lactation consultant at Heartland Regional Medical Center who helps new mothers learn to breast-feed their infants. "In the beginning, it's a learned behavior for both moms and babies."

She's found that about half of the mothers she works with are willing to give breast-feeding a try but believes very few commit to it through their children's first birthdays. In addition to struggling simply to learn how the process works, mothers often face the challenge of going back to work and not having a convenient place to pump or store breast milk -- or, even if they're not at work, of how to breast-feed in public.

Being around other women experiencing the same issues can be a big help in this, Kastl says.

"Coming to a support group helps them feel more comfortable breast-feeding in public, because they get to practice," she says. "It's good to be in an environment where breast-feeding is normal -- where it's just what you do as a mother."

In one of her group's recent meetings, Seever takes advantage of this opportunity to talk to other breast-feeding mothers, both about pluses (she finds that breast-fed babies have such healthy, glowing skin) and problems (what do you do when your baby bites?).

As she chats, Amelia Grace continues crawling all over, a busy, busy girl. And in this, maybe she takes after her mom.

"I'm a volunteer firefighter, and I take care of my husband and my house" in addition to taking the time to learn to breast-feed, Seever says. "I like my life busy."

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