Breastfeeding can break down disparities in health outcomes

Harold Mandel's picture
A mother breastfeeding her child

Research has shown that breastfeeding could prevent shocking disparities in health outcomes.

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It has generally been accepted that children are healthier when they are breasfed. However there remain many women who choose not to breasfeed their babies.

Wide disparities in health outcomes could actually be prevented by breastfeeding

The University of North Carolina Health Care System reports that wide disparities in health outcomes could actually be prevented by breastfeeding according to a new study. It was reported in this study that black infants had greater than twice the deaths of white infants which was due to not optimally breastfeeding the black infants. Three times the rate of necrotizing enterocolitis was also seen in the black infants. This is a devastating disease which is seen in preterm infants which is due to less than optimal rates of infants being fed with milk from their mothers.

"Optimal breastfeeding" has been defined as women breastfeeding their children exclusively during the first six months of their lives. This should be followed by continuing the breast feeding while other foods are introduced to the child for at least a year.

Breastfeeding is initiated at significantly higher rates by white women

It has been determined that breastfeeding is initiated at significantly higher rates by white women than by black women. White women also initiate breastfeeding at slightly higher rates than Hispanic women. Furthermore, white women were observed to breasfeed longer and to have better rates of exclusive breastfeeding. This has been the first study which has showed how such disparities lead to variations in health outcomes.

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Barriers to breastfeeding are reflected by the disparities

Dr. Alison Stuebe, a co-author of the study, has said barriers to breastfeeding are reflected by the disparities in rates of breastfeeding. Dr. Stuebe thinks health disparities can be decreased by protecting the right of each woman to breastfeed her kids.

It is of concern that ear infections as a result of suboptimal breastfeeding have been found to be 1.7 times more common in black infants and 1.4 times as common in Hispanic women. Gastrointestinal infections as a result of suboptimal breastfeeding have been found to be about 1.3-to-1.4 times as common in black and Hispanic infants.

These illnesses create serious economic insecurity for parents who have to miss work to take care of their children when they are sick. It is shown in Department of Labor statistics that it is more likely black and Hispanic mothers are heads of households and have low paying jobs which do not include paid sick leave.

There were also differences in maternal health outcomes due to suboptimal breastfeeding

There were also differences in maternal health outcomes due to suboptimal breastfeeding noted in this study. There was a 1.4 times higher rate of hypertension and type 2 diabetes for black women linked to suboptimal breastfeeding, in comparison to white women.

This study has been published in The Journal of Pediatrics. The researchers had an objective of estimating the disease burden and associated costs which can be attributed to suboptimal breastfeeding rates in non-Hispanic blacks, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic whites. Suboptimal breastfeeding was found to be linked a signficantly greater burden of disease in non-Hispanic black and Hispanic populations. The social, economic and medical realities of this study are startling.

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