Several local groups are working to shed light on the importance of breast-feeding and the obstacles facing many new mothers.
The scope of the commitment was on display last week, when roughly 25 organizations and 125 care providers gathered at the Virginia Historical Society for Richmond’s first breast-feeding symposium.
Friday’s event was a result of collaboration between several organizations. The groups at the forefront include the Richmond Health Action Alliance, which is funded by the Virginia Foundation for Health Youth through the Richmond Healthy Start Initiative; Richmond City WIC, which is a supplemental food program for women, infants and children; Nurture, an organization dedicated to the health of families with children; and the Richmond City Health District.
The goal was to identify local breast-feeding barriers, discuss what can be done to eliminate them, and train health care providers with a new breast-feeding strategy titled Ready, Set, BABY, which was developed by the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute.
Ready, Set, BABY is an evidence-based tool that will provide caregivers with consistent guidelines for new mothers, according to Leslie Lytle, Nurture’s executive director. She also works with the Richmond Health Action Alliance.
“This gives us a common language,” Lytle said. “One of the things we hear back from moms, particularly in low-income areas, is that they’re getting mixed messages from the different health care providers — sometimes not accurate information.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that breast-feeding should be considered a public health issue in addition to a personal choice because of its numerous positive health benefits for children.
The academy recommends that babies are exclusively breast-fed for their first six months, and that women continue to breast-feed for the following six months while also giving complementary foods.
Breast-feeding reduces a child’s risk for numerous diseases and a mother’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and the practice facilitates bonding, according to the academy.
Lytle said that, despite the recommendations, some women stop breast-feeding because of a lack of education about their options and the stigma sometimes attached to the practice. Low-income women especially face a variety of obstacles regarding a healthy breast-feeding experience.
A report published last year by In These Times, a nonprofit magazine that analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Labor, found that 25 percent of women go back to work within two weeks of giving birth.
“That’s not because they want to; it’s because they have to,” Lytle said. “Most of those women are low-income, and we know that women of color tend to populate low-income jobs.”
She also said low-income communities rarely support the career paths necessary to become a breast-feeding counselor or therapist, which means women in those communities do not have the peer support that wealthier women usually have.
“It’s a very complex, multilayered issue,” Lytle continued. “Structural racism is impacting African-American and (other) women of color’s ability to breast-feed, so that’s what we want to address, but all women struggle with this. Our society is not set up well for the biological reality of women’s lives.”
Educating health care providers with Ready, Set, BABY is one way to help spread a consistent message about breast-feeding to new mothers. But eliminating the stigma around breast-feeding in public is another vital part of Nurture and Richmond Health Action Alliance’s goals, Lytle said.
“I think breast-feeding is at the forefront of shaping the conversation about women’s capacity and women’s contributions to the health of our community,” Lytle said. “And it’s been ignored.”
To bring awareness to the issue, the Richmond Health Action Alliance launched a campaign last year, #RVABreastfeeds.
The alliance received a grant to continue its work from the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth late last year and will use that money to launch the campaign again this August.
“(Breast-feeding is) the beginning point of health for every mother, and the ability to breast-feed impacts mothers and babies throughout their life trajectory,” Lytle said. “It’s setting up the basic foundation for health.”