Does Income Affect Breastfeeding…. Does a Mom’s BMI?

Maternal Variables Influencing Duration of Breastfeeding Among Low-Income Mothers
Anne Chevalier McKechnie, RN, IBCLC, RLC, Audrey Tluczek, PhD, RN, and Jeffrey B. Henriques, PhD
ICAN: Infant, Child, & Adolescent Nutrition June 2009

This is my review of their study….

Who breastfeeds longer? The study was performed on low income moms. The lack of long term breastfeeding is highest in this group. What the findings showed was that moms who had a high body mass index also fed for a shorter period of time. And the moms who fed longer were also moms who breastfed more exclusively. Younger moms did not nurse as long as the older moms in this study as well.

The study was done in hopes to figure out how to improve the outcomes for breastfeeding moms to nurse for a longer period of time. It stated, “US Department of Health and Human Services established the following goals for breastfeeding by the year 2010: a 75% rate of initiation, a 50% rate of breastfeeding for 6 months, and a 25% rate of breastfeeding for 12 months.“ They set a goal to lengthen the duration of breastfeeding and to help moms exclusively breastfeed.

So, let’s look at this study. It makes sense that if you begin weaning- and weaning meaning putting anything in the baby’s mouth besides the breasts- that the breastfeeding duration will be shortened. Many mothers do not realize that sucking needs are normal and should be met at the breasts as often as possible as to increase milk supply. Instead they begin using a pacifier too quickly and too often and wonder why their milk supply dwindles. They also think that just one bottle will not make any difference to their breastfeeding relationship. It does. One bottle quickly becomes more and soon others are feeding the baby and we are trying to pump to keep our supply going when nursing would automatically do that.

Poor women are more susceptible, I suspect, since often they are forced into the work environment to survive and our government assistance offers them free formula in order to feed their baby instead of a stipend to stay home and nurse. When my own daughter qualified for the WIC program I was amazed out how often she was encouraged to take the formula they offered and start supplements sooner. So, I was not surprised to find this study also showed, “Many mothers in low-income populations participate in Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs, and numerous studies have shown that these mothers are less likely to breastfeed as compared with nonparticipants of WIC programs.”

I believe these women are also often encouraged to start solids sooner. The concern I am sure may be that the women themselves have poor nutrition, thus breast milk is compromised. But instead of providing the mom with better nutritional guidelines, the suggestion is made that she offer her infant something that is less nutritious than nursing her baby. This study indeed showed how, “the highest risk for poor health, tend to have the lowest breastfeeding rates.”

The other part of this study looked at how the B.M.I. of women affected their breastfeeding relationship with their babies. “Obesity may also adversely affect breastfeeding in several ways. First, mothers with a BMI at or above 30 kg/m2 may experience hormonal patterns that interfere with milk production.30-32 Second, the infants of obese and overweight mothers may have physical difficulty latching onto the breast.31 Finally, an elevated BMI may indirectly interfere with the initiation and duration of breastfeeding because obesity is also associated with complications of pregnancy and delivery, cesarean delivery, poor maternal self-esteem, maternal depression, and low socioeconomic status. A recent study34 found that mothers with a BMI ≥25 kg/m2 were more likely to have discontinued breastfeeding before 6 months than normal-weight mothers.”

I tried to think about how this factored into the relationships of moms and babies I had worked with over the years. Indeed I saw more women who were considered overweight having complications with their pregnancies. These complications did lead to more surgical births as well as inductions and the edema that inductions sometimes caused in the moms causing latch issues initially. I have not seen the hormonal shift issues but certainly can see where an out of balance hormonal issue can cause milk production issues as well. But recently I had a client who is obese have real issues with her third baby. She found herself unable to successfully breastfeed outside of her own home environment due to how she had to work to latch her daughter onto the breast. It was not something she could do easily or even the least bit discretely.

New moms are concerned with body image as their breasts are larger but their bellies are still on the post pregnancy form- and therefore they want to hide their bulges and are learning to manage the new larger breasts. This makes them uncomfortable initiating breastfeeding in many situations outside of their home. Part of this is how we make women feel about their bodies in general in the USA and how we make breastfeeding a sexual act instead of a natural one. But certainly not feeling good about our bodies makes us not feel good about some of the natural body functions we may have as well. Our environmental support systems are certainly lacking in regards to support for breastfeeding.

This study had a hypothesis of, “Mothers within a low-income population who chose exclusive breastfeeding would likely (a) continue breastfeeding longer than mothers, who chose partial breastfeeding, (b) be of an older age than mothers who chose partial breastfeeding, and (c) have a lower BMI than mothers who chose partial breastfeeding.”

The other factor that was mentioned in this study was age. The younger moms seemed to lack the support of their community in breastfeeding and therefore initiated breastfeeding less as well as length of time of breastfeeding was limited.

The study concluded with this statement, “Breastfeeding is a complex issue with lifelong consequences for both mother and infant. This study found that factors, such as exclusive breastfeeding, older maternal age, and lower BMI, were associated with longer breastfeeding duration. These findings move us closer to understanding the unique needs of low-income, WIC, breastfeeding mothers and support the notion that maternal readiness and capacity for breastfeeding are influenced by dynamic biopsychosocial processes.”

I wonder if we had more pictures of younger moms nursing their babies in ads, women who overweight were nursing their babies, and moms in general nursing in more public areas in ads and government promotional materials, if we would increase these numbers for both initiating breastfeeding as well as duration of nursing exclusively. I wonder if we increased awareness to the communities of the benefits of breastfeeding if we would see the support change in the communities to support all women and babies in breastfeeding.

When as a lactation educator I am still counteracting the negative and detrimental things that are being done in the hospitals to sabotage breastfeeding, in the WIC offices to undermine the moms and in the communities that still want to banish women and their nursling to the bathrooms to nurse, if BMI and socioeconomic conditions are just a drop in the bucket as to why breastfeeding numbers are dwindling in the US.

Teresa Howard, CD (DONA), CLD, CLE, CCCE (CAPPA), CHBE