Breast-feeding 101

Experts share advice on discussing breast-feeding with patients

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is urging family physicians to talk with patients about breast-feeding. Here’s what you need to know.


Many moms face myriad challenges when they begin breast-feeding. Recognizing the health benefits of breast-feeding, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued a recommendation in October encouraging primary care physicians to provide education and support for new mothers on breast-feeding.

Below, three experts share helpful information that all physicians can use when talking with their patients about breast-feeding.

1. Breast-feeding has numerous health benefits for mom and baby.

“Breast-feeding reduces the risk of childhood infections, developing obesity, and may enhance cognitive development in children,” says Zelalem T. Haile, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Athens. “Breast-feeding is widely known to reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well as Type 2 diabetes in mothers.”

2. Physicians should educate patients on breast-feeding, but not pressure them to do it.

“Like many osteopathic physicians, I believe in patient autonomy,” says Betsy Greenleaf, DO, urogynecologist at the New Jersey Urologic Institute in Eatontown. “My job is to provide education and resources for patients to make their own life choices.”

Pushing patients to breast-feed and dismissing other options can create guilt and feelings of inadequacy, Dr. Greenleaf says. “The medical community is here to help patients, not to create more stress for them,” she says.

3. Familial support is important.

“The area I practice in doesn’t have a breast-feeding culture,” says Kelly Pieh-Holder, DO, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. “One barrier I run into is grandmothers who didn’t breast-feed their children, so there’s not a lot of support from family members for those interested in breast-feeding. The more supportive and encouraging family members can be, the more likely mothers are to be successful if they decide to breast-feed.”

4. Encourage patients to have conversations with employers.

“Flexible work schedules, including work-from-home and part-time options, can encourage women to initiate and continue breast-feeding,” says Dr. Haile, who has conducted research on breast-feeding. “Providing privacy, adequate time, and flexibility in working hours to allow women to express breast milk can improve breast-feeding outcomes.”

In Dr. Pieh-Holder’s community, where there are high poverty rates, she says that a lot of women need to return to work soon after giving birth, so exclusive breast-feeding can be a challenge.

5. Breast-feeding can save money.

Financial insecurity is known to contribute to stress and health problems, and breast-feeding can provide fiscal relief to cash-strapped families, especially those in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

“WIC mothers who exclusively breast-feed have access to a greater variety of foods and receive larger food packages than partially breast-feeding and non-breast-feeding mothers,” says Dr. Haile, whose article on the topic appeared in the JAOA.

Mothers who aren’t enrolled in WIC will also likely benefit financially from breast-feeding, Dr. Pieh-Holder notes.

“There is a financial benefit to not having to buy formula,” says Dr. Pieh-Holder. “Less work is missed because babies are generally healthier.”

Leave a comment Please see our comment policy