During her first pregnancy, Emily Unger didn’t necessarily plan to breastfeed her son who is now well into his second year of life.
“As soon as I gave birth, he kind of naturally found the breast on his own as he was placed on my chest,” said Unger, a Valley, Washington, resident. “We had a great nursing relationship.”
Now, she thinks breastfeeding for him and his 8-week-old brother helps her be a gentler parent. She backs the bonding experience and health boosts for mother and child. Inspired by the benefits, Unger trades tips with other moms who want to nurse past a year.
“And it’s helped my low-income family feed my babies for free,” she said.
Brooke Barron, of Coeur d’Alene, also is an advocate for breastfeeding, including safeguards in the workplace. She recently began a petition seeking to extend federal law regarding working mothers having space and time for breaks to nurse or pump breast milk past one year.
“I started the petition to change the federal law; it protects mothers right now who nurse and pump for a year and I’m trying to get that moved to two years,” said Barron, a certified nursing assistant.
While she categorizes her employer as family-friendly, Barron said she recently was told she couldn’t have longer breaks to pump because her baby is over a year old.
“She’s starting to ween but weening takes time.”
Barron said she’s worked out an arrangement at her job and is willing to go on breaks without pay, “because it’s something I’ve chosen to do,” but she’s heard from other mothers who don’t get such latitude.
Breastfeeding moms need more support than just receiving pamphlets, especially those mothers who work outside the home, she added.
“I think that’s one of the barriers; that it isn’t promoted enough,” she said. “And (baby) formula through WIC is so easy to get a hold of.”
“Mothers just don’t have the support they need. There is not enough awareness or education, and it provides so much benefit, like antibodies for babies and it benefits the immune system … That’s not to to shame moms who don’t breastfeed because there’s lots of reasons women can’t, but if you can, there are so many benefits.”
Barron doesn’t think she’ll get the 100,000 signatures needed by Aug. 31 for her petition, which recently hit 9,200, but she feels it’s making an impact. “This issue isn’t going away.”
While rates for breastfeeding at birth are relatively high for Northwest states, a Spokane Regional Health District specialist said WIC data indicates that mothers tend to stop nursing infants a short time after leaving the hospital.
Sometimes, the reason is that moms incorrectly think they aren’t producing enough milk for hungry newborns, said Kristin Brewer, a registered dietitian and lactation specialist. She’s with SRHD in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC.
“In Eastern Washington, the duration is kind of our biggest concern,” Brewer said. “At the beginning, most mommies know that they want to breastfeed, it’s just when they get home even within the first week, then it starts to drop down and they start to supplement with formula.”
Other reasons for stopping breastfeeding vary, Brewer said. For some women, breastfeeding or pumping becomes a challenge after going back to work.
And there’s lots of marketing around use of baby formula, she said, while sometimes doctors and moms try to solve breastfeeding issues by supplementing too soon with products off the shelf.
“We’re trying to educate mommies about what’s normal newborn behavior,” Brewer added. “Sometimes, a newborn baby eats a lot in the beginning just because their tummies are so little, and breast milk digests really completely, so babies are hungry a lot.
“So some moms are thinking they don’t have a good milk supply. We’re trying to educate moms that this is normal with babies, that their tummies get bigger really fast … so I think a lot of times, moms are kind of sabotaging themselves thinking they’re not producing enough milk.”
In Spokane County, 94.4 percent of infants were initially breastfed at birth in 2016 based on hospital records, according to state Department of Health data, just slightly below the 94.6 percent for the state. County records for 2015 showed 93.3 percent.
Mary Monroe, with Panhandle Health District’s WIC program, said the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare data shows 94.7 percent of infants were initially breastfed at birth statewide in 2016.
Also, she said new Idaho legislation effective July 1 now specifically excludes breastfeeding from the state’s indecent exposure and obscenity laws. Idaho was the last state to enact a law protecting women who nurse their babies in public.
WIC offices are working to improve breastfeeding statistics by giving women more access to breastfeeding education and support, Brewer said.
Some steps include providing pregnant women with a template for a “breastfeeding plan” to provide to hospital staff. The agency also offers peer counselors, support and education.
Unger got help continuing to breastfeed longer by joining support groups, contacting other mothers through social media and reading articles. She initially went to meetings of La Leche League of Spokane, a mother-to-mother breastfeeding support organization.
“I looked up different articles, like on pumping tips and can I take this medication while I’m nursing? What are the rules for having a glass of wine, which is totally OK. A lot of people get misinformation and that ends their relationship because they don’t have support.”
She also got help from WIC counselors, who assured her that breastfeeding would provide enough nutrition for her firstborn son. She joined Spokane Babywearing, a group that helps mom hold their babies in wraps or carriers. Nearly half the women at meetings were breastfeeding, she said.
“It made be feel more comfortable nursing,” she said. “The first couple of weeks I felt nervous, but the more I learned, I now know it’s normal and not something that needs to be covered up unless you feel more comfortable with that.”
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