Monday, January 24, 2011

Surgeon general's breastfeeding Call to Action takes a public health approach

The nation's top doctor, and UAB alumna, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin has issued new breastfeeding guidelines. Her Call to Action describes specific steps people can take to participate in a society-wide approach to support mothers and babies who are breastfeeding.

"This approach will increase the public health impact of everyone's efforts, reduce inequalities in the quality of health care that mothers and babies receive, and improve the support that families receive in employment and community settings," Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, writes in a foreward.

UAB's Rune Toms, M.D., medical director of the regional newborn intensive care unit and chair of the Alabama Breastfeeding Coalition Provider Education Committee, is thrilled Benjamin is throwing federal support behind something the physicians and nurses in Women and Infants Services at UAB have been working to educate patients about for a number of years.

"I think it is wonderful that the surgeon general is making breastfeeding a priority," Toms says. "Nationally we are far behind our potential and it needs to be addressed."

Toms says breastfeeding is important for the health of both mothers and babies. Breast milk provides provides optimal nutrition for babies, with a perfect concentration of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals vitamins and hormones. Breast milk also protects babies against infections and the mother provides valuable antibodies and other factors that help babies develop their own immune systems. For mothers, breastfeeding is associated with lower maternal risks of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and postpartum depression. It also is a great way to loose extra weight gained during the pregnancy.

And for patients and employees, the university has made breastfeeding a priority.

"UAB is a huge advocate in encouraging breastfeeding," Toms says. "We employ the steps set forth by the WHO Baby Friendly Hospital guidelines. We have a written policy supportive of breastfeeding and our goal is to feed term babies breast milk withing the first hour of life. Further, we provide private areas within the hospital and around campus where mothers can feel comfortable breastfeeding. We also provide full support from our staff -- all of our nurses are certified breastfeeding educators -- and we have certified lactation consultants on staff to provide support necessary for nursing mothers."

Toms says the messages from the surgeon general are familiar. The announcement didn't revolve around groundbreaking research. So why the fuss? Because it just hasn't sunk in yet. Like hand washing to prevent the spread of flu, breastfeeding is fundamental, but too often dismissed.

"We need more education programs at birth facilities and in community health services," Toms says. "There need to be more community nurses and lactation consultants available in these settings to help nursing mothers.

"Something that can happen immediately is support from immediate family and friends. There also need to be more community breastfeeding groups created to provide nursing mothers peers to assist and support them. And, there needs to be acceptance of breastfeeding breaks in the workplace and private locations in workplaces and in public places to accommodate breastfeeding mothers. When these things are accomplished, I believe the number of women breastfeeding their children at least six months will grow," he says.

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