Your Role in the Warm Chain
Amidst worldwide crises, breastfeeding parents need our collective support more than ever—and every single member of our global community has a role to serve in protecting the parent-baby dyad. That’s why this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, which began on August 1st and will continue until August 7th, focuses on ‘The Warm Chain’ of support for breastfeeding; and educating, strengthening, and mobilizing each member of our society to take thoughtful action.
We interviewed TLN International Board Certified Lactation Consultant Chrisie Rosenthal, General Pediatrician Katie Han, and HR Business Partner Alex Lickenbrock about why breastfeeding matters for our society at large, and how everyone—from employers and co-parents, to friends and local business owners—can do their part to champion breastfeeding for everyone who can and wants to breastfeed. Because, while breastfeeding is not the right choice for every family, we must create societal structures where successful breastfeeding is possible for everyone around the world.
Breastfeeding Saves Lives
According to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health, “research shows that if 90% of families breastfed exclusively for six months, nearly 1,000 deaths among infants could be prevented each year.” UNICEF’s findings are also staggering: A 2016 study found “that increasing breastfeeding rates around the world to near universal levels could prevent 823,000 annual deaths in children younger than five years and 20,000 annual maternal deaths from breast cancer.” That means for nearly 850 thousand people, breastfeeding is quite literally life or death.
How? Per Rosenthal, “breast milk is the perfect nutrition for your baby. The composition is unique to you and your baby, and always changing to meet your baby’s current needs.” For this reason, breastfed babies have lower risks of asthma, childhood leukemia, childhood obesity, ear infections, eczema, diarrhea and vomiting, lower respiratory infections, necrotizing enterocolitis, sudden infant death syndrome, and type two diabetes. For lactating parents, breastfeeding aids in healing after birth, and helps prevent type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer, and certain types of breast cancer. The AAP and WHO recommend six months of exclusive breastfeeding, and two years or more of breastfeeding supplemented with appropriate complementary foods after the six month mark—stressing that lactating parents need more support to meet this goal. Without adequate breastfeeding support, our global health suffers.
Breastfeeding Benefits Society at Large
The impact of breastfeeding spans far beyond individual health outcomes. “Breastfeeding lowers medical costs and lightens the need for medical care,” shared Rosenthal. “Babies who are breastfed typically have fewer sick visits, fewer hospitalizations, and need fewer prescriptions.” In light of breastfeeding’s effect on health care, World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA)—the organizers of World Breastfeeding Week—specifically outline how pediatricians, obstetricians/gynecologists, and nutritionists/dieticians can better encourage breastfeeding and more positive health outcomes for all.
“My ultimate goal as a pediatrician is to have a healthy baby and a happy mom,” Han told us. As a pediatrician, “I often refer patients to our hospital lactation team for virtual and in-person visits. I can assist moms in ordering electronic breast pumps. I send letters to employers advocating for pumping breaks for working, breastfeeding moms.” And if achieving her goal “means supplementing or substituting with formula, then I support that as well!”
Economy and Labor
“Breastfeeding contributes to a more productive workforce,” Rosenthal noted. “Studies show that breastfeeding parents take less time off work caring for sick children.” In this way, breastfeeding supports every facet of the global economy, and likewise, deserves mutual support from business owners, HR teams, coworkers, managers, and even trade unions.
Lickenbrock shared that “over 1 million women left the workforce during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” That’s just one example of “the push and pull that working mothers feel to manage their children’s needs as well as their professional responsibilities,” she said—noting that it’s her responsibility as an HR Business Partner to support lactating parents. “Working mothers are a valuable asset to every workplace, and it should be an employers’ goal to advocate for the needs of these employees so that they can thrive in both their professional and family roles.”
If you employ or work with a lactating parent, here are a handful of ways you can help them, courtesy of Rosenthal:
|Co-workers||Small business owners with employees who breastfeed/pump||Small business owners supporting clients who breastfeed/pump|
|– Offer to cover for them while they leave to breastfeed or pump- Don’t pressure them to skip pump sessions or to be faster – Offer to bring them lunch if they are pumping at lunch- Don’t offer unsolicited breastfeeding advice – Do not use the pumping space for other activities; making it less available to pumping parents||– Educate yourself on your employees’ rights to pump at work – Create a warm, accessible, private pumping room (not a bathroom). Pumping room should have a small fridge, outlets, a locked door and a comfortable chair or two. – Offer a flexible schedule that allows parent to take pumping breaks – Don’t pressure employee to take faster breaks or wrap up breastfeeding- Consider renting a hospital grade pump for the pumping room- Consider stocking snacks in the pumping room||– Advertise that your business is breastfeeding-friendly. Consider posting a decal near your entry. – Provide a comfortable space for breastfeeding and/or pumping – Educate your employees on your breastfeeding policy and how to answer a breastfeeding client’s questions – If possible, make water available to breastfeeding parents|
If you, like Lickenbrock, manage an HR department or a company, you can also contact TLN’s Newborn Family program to set up employee lactation benefits. With insurance-covered access to our expert IBCLCs, essential breastfeeding supplies, and helpful resources, you can bolster your employees’ continued success—at work and at home.
To add to its myriad impactful benefits,“breastfeeding is also better for the environment,” Rosenthal noted. “The materials used for formula cans and bottles add to waste in landfills. Additionally, it takes energy to make formula and formula packaging, and to transport it from manufacturing centers to points of sale.” WABA echoes this sentiment, and offers actionable steps for environmentalists and climate activists to advocate for breastfeeding as a “renewable and sustainable first food.”
Per Dr. Naomi Joffe and Dr. Natalie Shenker, contributing authors for The BMJ, “the food industry, particularly dairy and meat production, contributes around 30% of global greenhouse gasses. Most formulas are based on powdered cows’ milk… the water footprint of milk powder alone is roughly 4700 L/kg.” They added that “powdered cows’ milk is supplemented with additives such as palm, coconut, rapeseed, and sunflower oils; fungal, algal, and fish oils; and minerals and vitamins.” These supplements, too, must be mined from the environment.
Breastfeeding Reduces Inequalities Globally
According to World Breastfeeding Week, “breastfeeding plays an important role in managing the double burden of malnutrition,” which WHO defines as the “the coexistence of undernutrition along with overweight, obesity or diet-related noncommunicable diseases.” This double burden disproportionately affects low-income communities. A lack of lactation support “puts families below the poverty line and those in developing countries at higher risk for suboptimal health outcomes,” said Rosenthal. Additionally, “formula is often expensive, and that can lead to improper constitution (diluting).”
For communities in crisis—for instance, those facing war, displacement, or natural disaster—”breastfeeding can save your baby’s life,” shared the U.S. Office on Women’s Health. “Breastfeeding protects your baby from the risks of an unclean water supply… can help protect your baby against respiratory diseases and diarrhea,” and also helps to keep your baby’s body temperature from dropping too low. Breastfeeding addresses many of the inequalities that keep us from reaching UNICEF’s sustainable development goals. And knowing that, it’s easier to see why supporting and promoting breastfeeding is everyone’s responsibility.
Support Begins with You
For co-parents and support partners of lactating parents, we created this comprehensive guide to support your loved one’s breastfeeding journey. WABA also published action steps specifically for fathers. And everyone, including midwives, teachers, young people, and even IBCLCs can identify their role in The Warm Chain, learn how to expand and strengthen their support capabilities, and take informed action here.
Outside of knowing your own role in the warm chain, creating a continuum of breastfeeding support entails linking up with other stakeholders in and beyond your community. So connect, get involved, and let’s #stepupforbreastfeeding—together.