The last week has been a good one for breastfeeding women and families in Richmond, starting on August 1st with World Breastfeeding Week and the inclusion of breastfeeding support, supplies, and counseling by the Affordable Care Act, and culminating with this past weekend’s Big Latch On at the Virginia State Capitol. Though the absolute numbers attending that event were small (about 150 breastfeeding women, family members, and supporters), what occurred there was momentous, and I believe a sign of positive things to come for breastfeeding women and families in Richmond. Allow me to let you in on a few things that have been happening behind the scenes.
Last year, Richmond’s mayor, Dwight C. Jones, authorized a Breastfeeding Commission to develop priorities and strategies, and to identify potential funding sources and mechanisms by which the city could promote breastfeeding. This is a particularly important issue for at-risk and underserved women in our community, as these populations have a much lower rate of breastfeeding, which contributes to a higher infant mortality rate. Richmond’s infant mortality rate, while declining, is much higher than the state average, and shows significant racial disparities (in 2011, the infant mortality rate for blacks in Richmond was 12.1 per thousand births, compared to 3 per thousand in whites). For those of us working in the maternal/child health field, this is just not acceptable.
There is now no question that breastfeeding provides unsurpassed nutritional and immunological benefits for infants. Breastfed babies have fewer and less serious illnesses, reduced risks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), childhood cancers, diabetes, allergies, asthma, and obesity compared to formula fed babies. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding states that the risk of hospitalization for lower respiratory tract disease in the first year of life is 250% higher among formula fed babies than breastfed babies. UNICEF data indicates that optimal breastfeeding could save more infant lives than just about any other single measure.
Moms who breastfeed are healthier too, with a lowered risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and type II diabetes, a faster return to pre-pregnancy weight, and better cardiovascular health. Emerging research indicates that moms who breastfeed may experience lowered rates of postpartum depression – which affects not only moms, but their babies’ future mental health as well.
The economic advantages of breastfeeding are staggering. A 2007 study indicted that if 90% of US families followed guidelines to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, it would save $13 billion ANNUALLY in the form of reduced direct medical and indirect costs and the costs of premature death. And I haven’t even begun to discuss the environmental impact of breastfeeding over formula feeding. Just think of all those containers and bottles we wouldn’t be throwing away if breastfeeding were the norm (for every 1 million formula fed babies, 150 million formula containers are consumed).
With all these benefits, you’d think we’d be jumping all over ourselves to make it easier for women to breastfeed. Yet like most communities across the country, Richmond doesn’t have any policies in place to support women’s ability to breastfeed their children. So the Mayor’s convening of a Breastfeeding Commission was significant step in the right direction.
This commission, of which I was a member, was remarkable in its diversity and commitment. Consisting of pediatricians, obstetricians, nurses, lactation consultants, childbirth educators, doulas, community activists, representatives from the business and insurance companies, members of the faith community, (and yes, a prenatal yoga instructor!), all of us share a passion for improving the health of women and babies. Most of us have been down in the trenches with new mothers, and have first hand experience with the social, structural, and economic barriers women face in attempting to breastfeed their infants. It was a powerful group, and if we ruled the world . . . well, breastfeeding in Richmond would be a whole different experience. It was an honor to be part of a collection of (mostly) women, who broke down cultural, economic, and professional walls to come up with recommendations for the common good of mothers and babies in our community.
Which brings me back to this past weekend’s Big Latch On, and why it was such a significant event. Because of the work the Breastfeeding Commission has done so far, Healthy Start Richmond, which works with low-income pregnant women, and representatives from three COMPETING hospital systems, HCA, Bon Secours, and VCU Health System, joined forces to coordinate our local latch on. Whenever competing interests work together for the common good, it is not a small thing. I believe this collaboration would not have happened without the opportunities for dialogue created by the Breastfeeding Commission. Representatives from these hospital systems are already working within their organizations to implement breastfeeding policies based on best practices – and they are doing so in communication with each other, rather than in isolation. This bodes well for mothers, babies, and families in our community.
Parenthood is a great leveler. The Big Latch On was attended by mothers and families from various income levels, ethnic groups, sexual orientations, and personal circumstances. All of them committed to raising awareness about the importance of breastfeeding in our community. Cause the fact is, if we are able to improve the culture of breastfeeding in Richmond, we make it easier for ALL mothers, not just those who are economically or socially fragile. And all babies – who are after all the future of our community – benefit.
The Breastfeeding Commission’s work is not over. We are seeking public input on the recommendations we’ve developed, and we are charged with identifying funding sources to implement those recommendations. In order to move forward effectively, we need the public’s input and support. Cultural change of this magnitude does not happen without community engagement.
If you’d like to learn more about breastfeeding and how it impacts our community, please consider attending Thursday night’s Breastfeeding Commission Public Forum. Share your thoughts on how we can improve the culture of breastfeeding in Richmond. In addition to breastfeeding mothers, the Commission would especially like to hear from men and non-breastfeeding women. Please consider attending. Pass this on to others in your social circle. Help Richmond take some small steps that will have a very big impact on the health of our community.
For those interested in attending, here are the details:
Mayor Dwight C. Jones and the City of Richmond invite you to the
Breastfeeding Commission Public Forum
Thursday, August 9th
Byrd Park Round House
600 South Davis Street
Join us for a presentation of the Commission’s work and the opportunity to provide input on the recommendations. Men and Non-Breastfeeding Women are also encouraged to attend. For more information about the meeting or to alert us of any special accommodations you require, please call 804-646-5454. For more information about the Breastfeeding Commission, visit www.RichmondGov.com/HumanServices