Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Military moms change the face of breastfeeding

October 22, 2015

“Army Strong” took on new meaning last week thanks to a new policy that supports soldier moms who are breastfeeding. The announcement means that now all five branches of the U.S. military are taking steps to ensure that new moms are able both to serve their country and to provide their babies with the best possible nutrition. Helping these children get a healthy, (Army) strong start at life is an important protection for the families that give so much to protect our country. 

Under the new policy, active, Guard and Reserve members of the Army will have the time and private space to pump breastmilk while at work. This is critical to ensure that women are able to continue breastfeeding when their maternity leave ends. Members of other military branches benefit from similar provisions—including authorized breaks to pump milk every three to four hours (Air Force) and deferred deployment after giving birth (six months for Marine Corps, 12 months for Navy).

The change in Army policy came less than two weeks after a photograph of 10 Army moms breastfeeding in camouflage went viral. Fort Bliss, where the photo was taken to adorn the walls of a new breastfeeding room, is the Army’s second largest installation, covering 1,700 square miles in New Mexico and Texas. The photo sent a powerful message—as did Pope Francis when he expressed his support for breastfeeding in the Vatican, saying that mothers should breastfed their babies anywhere and anytime “without thinking twice.”

Breastfeeding is important for the health of both mothers and children, and the benefits are numerous, well documented and lasting. For mothers, breastfeeding reduces the risk of ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and hypertension. For infants, breastfeeding and good nutrition provide a healthy start in life, and even offer personalized medicine to the newborn. Breastfeeding fights harmful bacteria, feeds beneficial bacteria and jumpstarts a newborn’s immune system. Studies find a positive effect of breastfeeding on IQ and a reduction in risk of childhood leukemia (19%). A 30-year study conducted in Brazil found that individuals who had been breastfed as infants attended increased years of school and earned higher wages later in life.

However, in the U.S. as well as abroad, more mothers and children could benefit from breastfeeding. Most children are not being breastfed according to WHO guidelines, which recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding with complementary foods for 24 months or more. The only way to achieve this goal is to support mothers who are working hard to provide their children with the best nutrition while also working hard in the office, in the field and at home. Policies and programs such as the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative and maternity protection have proven highly successful in increasing breastfeeding rates, but they must be more widely implemented in order for more families and communities to reap the benefits.

While maternity leave and policies supporting moms who return to work and still want to breastfeed are too often not viewed as critical health and nutrition interventions, thankfully the breastfeeding landscape is gradually improving. The 2010 U.S. Affordable Care Act requires health insurers to provide coverage for lactation counseling and breast-milk pumps. The law also requires many employers to provide space and time breast-milk expression. Today, nearly all states have laws that protect breastfeeding in public, and many businesses—large and small, tech and traditional—are rolling out new breastfeeding policies for their employees.    

Since 2007, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published a yearly Breastfeeding Report Card that summarizes state-by-state advances in the numbers of women who breastfeed and the implementation of programs that result in better breastfeeding. The findings demonstrate that breastfeeding among all socioeconomic and ethnic groups is increasing, though the rates are lagging among low-income and African American moms. 

But even with this progress, there is much more that needs to be done. Each week, we hear stories of moms chastised for breastfeeding in public and there remain millions of women who have to make the choice between staying home to breastfeed or returning to work to earn a paycheck to support their families.

By changing the face of who breastfeeds and where they breastfeed, the photo of Army soldiers breastfeeding normalizes this important act. We need to continue sharing these powerful images, while also working to ensure that all families get the types of protections that members of the military now benefit from.

 Dr. Chessa Lutter is Senior Advisor on Food and Nutrition at the Pan American Health Organization, Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization PAHO/WHO. 

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