Wednesday, July 31, 2013

World Breastfeeding Week 2013 - Enhancing Peer Support for Breastfeeding Success

This year's World Breastfeeding Week is highlighting the importance of breastfeeding peer counselors in optimizing the breastfeeding success of new and experienced mothers. With little more than half of all mothers exclusively breastfeeding past one week (1), peer support is critical for increasing our population's health.

Breastfeeding is important for the health of both mothers and babies. Breastfeeding helps a baby stay healthy and research shows that increased length and exclusivity of breastfeeding can decrease a baby's risk of contracting a number of illnesses such as otitis media (ear infections) and gastroenteritis, or dying from SIDS. The benefits of breastfeeding extend into childhood and beyond by decreasing the risk of childhood obesity, diabetes (type 1 & 2), and leukemia. For the mother, breastfeeding helps to protect against breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and type 2 diabetes. (2)

"Compared with breastfed infants, formula-fed infants face higher risks of infectious morbidity in the first year of life. These differences in health outcomes can be explained, in part, by specific and innate immune factors present in human milk." (2)

Breastfeeding is encouraged by all major health organizations and it is recommended that breastfeeding occur exclusively, meaning no other liquids or solids (except medicine or vitamin supplements, if needed) until the baby reaches 6 months old. At 6 months, solid foods can be added to the baby's diet, in addition to breastfeeding, which should continue for as long as mother and baby desire.

"If 90% of U.S. families could comply with medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, the U.S. would save $13 billion per year and prevent an excess 911 deaths, nearly all of which would be infants." (3)


The role of the peer counselor is to support mothers in the community. Peer counselors are trained to: provide emotional support to breastfeeding mothers, help with general and common breastfeeding issues/concerns, and to recognize signs of more severe lactation problems and connect the mother with a breastfeeding expert, such as an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Counselor (IBCLC).

A peer counselor is often a mother who has breastfed herself and receives additional training from the organization they are volunteering or working with (they may or may not be 'certified' with an organization, more below). Organizations such as the supplemental nutrition program Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and La Leche League International (LLLI) provide trained peer counselors to provide group, on-call, or individualized breastfeeding support to moms.

A breastfeeding peer counselor may be certified with an organization, such as Healthy Children's Center for Breastfeeeding. A certification demonstrates that the counselor has completed a required number of hours in the classroom and passed an exam; it doesn't necessarily mean that they have ample direct experience with breastfeeding mothers. However, that being said, as a Certified Lactation Counselor myself, I can say that if you didn't know a thing about breastfeeding before going into the 40-hour course, you aren't going to pass the exam, at least a little knowledge and experience is needed.

Peer counselors, whether certified or not, are a crucial part of improving population health through encouraged, continued, and exclusive breastfeeding.

"The overwhelming majority of evidence from randomized controlled trails evaluating breastfeeding peer counseling indicates that peer counselors effectively improve rates of breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity." (4)

Their dedication improves maternal and infant health, saves hundreds of babies from preventable illness and death each year, and help to save countless amounts in healthcare cost (remember that $13 billion per year) and prevent tons of environmental waste.

If you are interested in becoming a peer counselor,  a certified lactation counselor, or even an IBCLC, I encourage you to research what is available in your area (such as existing breastfeeding support groups) and identify what credentials are required for the type of work you want to do. Then connect with a few people in those positions.

You can support breastfeeding mothers in many ways, you don't have to become a peer counselor or even receive any kind of training!  

You can simply thank a mother for breastfeeding her baby, or stand up for a mother that has been discriminated against for breastfeeding, such as in public. As a husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother, boy/girlfriend, friend, coworker, or a bystander YOU can improve our breastfeeding rates by supporting and encouraging those women who are breastfeeding!

Thank you to all those who have breastfed their babies and to those who tried. Thank you to the counselors, health professionals, mothers, friends, and family members who have supported a breastfeeding mother.

Thank you to the BREASTFEEDING PEER COUNSELORS for your dedication to improving maternal and infant health, for everything you do!

Cheers to you!
~Wisdom and Birth

(1) Breastfeeding among U.S. children born 2000–2009, CDC National Immunization Survey
(2) Stuebe A. The risks of not breastfeeding for mothers and infants. Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2009; 2(4):222-231.
(3) Bartick M and Reinhold A. The burden of suboptimal breastfeeding in the United States: a pediatric cost analysis. Pediatrics 2010; 125;e1048; originally published online April 5, 2010. Retrieved from
(4) Chapman DJ, Morel K, Anderson AK, Damio G, Perez-Escamilla R. Breastfeeding peer counseling: from efficacy through scale-up. Journal of Human Lactation 2010; 26(3): 314-26.

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