The Center for Disease Control currently ranks Mississippi second in highest infant mortality rates in the nation—in 2016, the state lost 325 babies before their first birthday. Data from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that more than 900 infant lives per year may be saved in the United States if 90 percent of mothers exclusively breastfed for six months. This shows that if we want to improve the health outcome of babies and increase the number of those that reach their first birthday and beyond, we must center our efforts on removing systemic barriers to breastfeeding.
Moving the marker on breastfeeding and infant health takes the coordinated efforts of communities, hospitals, the government and industries to ensure that mothers’ rights to breastfeed are protected through policy, support, space and time. That is one reason why the Mississippi Urban League has partnered with the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Mississippi State Department of Health to take on the important work of developing and sustaining a culture of breastfeeding here in Mississippi. Our partnership, which the national BUILD Health Challenge funds, wants to change systems so that they will support, and never inhibit, our community’s efforts to be healthy.
We see the value of a supportive environment for breastfeeding as we work with parents who come to our SIPPS Baby Café, a place where moms and dads not only receive important health and wellness information, but also support from each other. Moms who come to the café say the network of support they receive helps them make the decision to start breastfeeding and motivates them to continue. Knowing that those women, many of whom are the only ones in their family to breastfeed, have someone to call or if they have questions or need encouraging words makes this work fulfilling. This is how we build sustainable support within the community.
In an effort to normalize breastfeeding, we bring breastfeeding out of the café and into the community. SIPPS M.O.B.s (Mothers Out Breastfeeding) provides opportunities for moms to breastfeed in public in a supportive group setting. These outings are designed to educate and sustain a culture of breastfeeding.
Our partnership also works with businesses to develop policies that allow mothers to use their break time to pump and store milk or breastfeed; and have lactation rooms and lactation education programs on site. We know that due to the absence of universal paid maternity leave, many mothers must return to work shortly after giving birth.
The World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund launched the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, a global program to encourage implementation of the “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding and the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes,” in 1991. The BFHI assists hospitals in giving mothers the information, confidence and skills necessary to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies or safely feed with formula, and gives special recognition to hospitals that have done so.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center is among the few Mississippi hospitals to be designated a “Baby-Friendly Hospital” and refers mothers to the SIPPS Baby Café to support and educate pregnant mothers, and support breastfeeding in a community setting. We understand that some mothers are unable to or choose not to breastfeed, and no one should infringe upon their rights to access breast-milk substitutes. Our collaborative effort is aimed at providing education, creating policies and developing supports to insure that systemic barriers do not influence a mom’s decision not to breastfeed.
We know what is best for the long-term health of Mississippi children. All babies need a head start to have a healthy future. We know breastfeeding the future generation of babies is a part of making that future a brighter one. We must not let our nation’s stance on the World Health Organization’s breastfeeding resolution discourage us. We will continue from the ground up with the momentum we have created to insure a healthy future for Mississippi children.
Beneta Burt is President and CEO of Mississippi Urban League.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Jackson Free Press.