Mother's Milk - the Gift that Keeps on Giving

All it takes to be reminded of the importance of mother's milk is to Google it.

The phrase prompts hundreds of thousands of breastfeeding links that prove that the words are synonymous with the best, the most valuable, and beyond compare. That's why 'mother's milk' is also the title of a rock album, the name of a Hudson Valley ale, and a way to describe the importance of money in politics.

But if small businesses are the mother's milk of the economy, if exercise and diet are the mother's milk of healthy lifestyles, then what exactly is mother's milk to babies?

Just about everything.

That's why we were disturbed by the recent Time magazine cover featuring the photograph of a mother nursing her three-year-old son. No, we weren't disturbed by the photograph. Rather, we were disturbed by the intentionally provocative image that once again sent a negative message about women who make the wise decision to breastfeed their children. At a time when more and more families understand the overwhelming benefits of breastfeeding, Time magazine ignored that trend and sent the conversation in a largely irrelevant direction.

In Memphis, to counter myths and misperceptions from the magazine cover, a group of women organized breastfeeding awareness events in which they nursed their children in high-profile locations. Organizer Chalise Bondurant said it well: "We want other breastfeeding moms to feel supported and confident to nurse for as long as they desire."

"As more people see this and more people have friends and family members that are exposed to breastfeeding, the more normal and accepted it will become. Hopefully, the next generation of breastfeeding moms here in the Memphis area will have a much easier time nursing their children if we do our best to educate and inform the general public now."

In 2011, it became legal in Tennessee to breastfeed children regardless of their age in any location. It was a long overdue change in state law that put breastfeeding on the front page along with campaigns by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Surgeon General. Both organizations recommended that mothers breastfeed their babies exclusively for six months and continue breastfeeding until at least 12 months. After that, they advised, breastfeeding should continue as long as the baby and mother desire it.

According to U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, "breastfeeding protects babies from infections and illnesses that include diarrhea, ear infections, and pneumonia. Breastfed babies are also less likely to develop asthma, and those who are breastfed for six months are less likely to become obese. Mothers themselves who breastfeed have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers."

In a study published last year in the journal Pediatrics, it was estimated that the nation would save $13 billion per year in health care and other costs if 90 percent of babies were exclusively breastfed for six months. Dr. Benjamin added that employers providing accommodations for nursing mothers can reduce their company's health care costs and lower their absenteeism and turnover rates.

While 75 percent of U.S. babies start out breastfeeding, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, only 13 percent are still being exclusively breastfed at the end of six months. The rates are particularly low among African-American infants. That's a disturbing reality for Shelby County, where 52 percent of the population is African-American. In Tennessee, about half of African-American infants are breastfed, which means that the other half are missing out on breastfeeding's positive effects on physical and intellectual growth, mother-child bonding, and brain development.

Without the right amounts of the right nutrients, a baby's brain cannot reach its potential.

That's why all of us, as individuals and as a community, need to support the nutritional health of at-risk children by encouraging breastfeeding and educating young people about the importance of giving every child the best opportunity for success in life.

In this regard, mother's milk is the gift that keeps on giving.