August is breastfeeding awareness month, and the Department of Health is reminding moms to be — and the general public — of the benefits.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services says breastfeeding is the “Gold Standard” for infant feeding.

Missouri mom Marilyn Cummins breastfeeds her son, William, at Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania. She credits La Leche League with offering the support she needed to stick to it, even while working. (Photo by Neal Fandek, Will's dad.)

State Breastfeeding Coordinator Carol Becker says educating women about the importance of nursing within the first moments of birth is key.

She says there are many reasons some are resistant to breastfeeding their babies, but the biggest challenge to overcome is the pressures of earning a paycheck … that women who work know they must return and don’t want to face weaning their children.

However, she says part of the federal healthcare reform act is a mandate that employers who have 50 or more employers must provide breaks and space for new moms to express breastmilk for their infants. And she says as of March of this year, Missouri law mandates that a woman cannot be asked to leave a public place to nurse her baby.

The department says breastfeeding provides numerous benefits to mothers, infants, the environment, and to the communities of Missouri. Accordingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months after birth and the continuation of breastfeeding through the first year of life. Human milk has all the essential nutrients and sufficient calories to meet infants’ nutritional demands.

And the department adds that breastfeeding isn’t just good for babies. It’s also a benefit to mothers: it boosts their immune systems and helps them get back to their pre-pregnancy weight sooner. Also, if their babies are healthier, that means less time off work to stay home with a sick infant.

The health department is offering nursing mom's a license to breastfeed in public. Click to image to be redirected to a printable copy to carry.

Trends show African American women are less likely than Hispanic or Caucasian women to breastfeed … as are women of a lower socio-economic status and teenage moms. Becker says some of it is lack of education, other times it’s cultural ideas. Teenage moms tend to shy from it because either they don’t want to be tied down to a strict schedule with their babies or they can just be embarrassed to breastfeed.

The department is working on programs with peer counseling to educate more mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding, and is working with Missouri hospitals to encourage new mothers to breastfeed rather than start their infants on formula right away. That can mean things as simple as not sending new moms home with formula samples provided by companies who are pushing their product or talking with new moms before they ever check in while in labor.

One Missouri hospital, in Hannibal, has been certified as a “breastfeeding friendly facility.” The Department of Health is urging others to do the same.

Jessica Machetta reports [Download / listen, Mp3]

Jessica Machetta interviews Carol Becker, State Breastfeeding Coordinator for the Department of Health [Download / listen Mp3, 13:47 min.]