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Advocates trying to find solutions for low breastfeeding rates in West Virginia


The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W.Va. — In a 2016 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the national average for breastfeeding is 81.1 percent. In West Virginia, the rate is 64.6 percent.

Rates at six months, however, drop dramatically — nationally to 51.8 percent, and in West Virginia to 35.8 percent.

“Breastfeeding rates are quite low,” shared Dr. Joni Gray Friday at the first Appalachian Breastfeeding Network conference. “Women in Appalachia don’t tend to think of breastfeeding as an option for their babies.”

Gray said she’s always viewed breastfeeding as normal. She watched her mother breastfeed her younger sister. Women at her church encouraged other women to breastfeed crying infants.

“For me, I didn’t really even think about feeding options. I just knew I was going to do it.”

She said her experience was not without complications, but there was no decision-making process for her.

Other women, especially in Appalachia, are oftentimes encouraged to use formula — sometimes by family members, sometimes by physicians, and sometimes by societal pressures.

In her research, Gray found women in Appalachia knew the benefits of breastfeeding, such as preventing the risk of obesity, diabetes and multiple cancers, but that’s not how many of them chose to feed their babies.

Gray found many Appalachian mothers had to return quickly to work after giving birth, which sometimes pushed them toward utilizing formula. Other women, however, considered their breasts sexual objects, not to be used to nourish a child.

Appalachian mothers also responded in her research that they believed infants should only be bottle-fed, especially in public. And other mothers simply had been told they wouldn’t be able to produce enough milk for their baby.

Gray said a cultural power code has been implemented in Appalachian communities placing formula over breastfeeding. She said breastfeeding has inaccurately been attached to low-income, single-parent homes.

“It’s social currency to use formula.”

But Gray and other members of the Appalachian Breastfeeding Network are trying to change that mindset.

“We need to get our message embraced and embedded. We need to de-throne formula.”

Laura Knisley, a nurse practitioner in Ohio, has also researched the barriers to successful breastfeeding in a formula-feeding culture.

Some of those barriers include poverty, limited education and unemployment.

“A rural location sometimes puts us at a disadvantage,” Knisley said. “It limits us to quality health care providers.”

Access to care is impacted by lack of transportation, poor roads, closure of hospitals and maternity wards, and limited clinic hours.

Despite the barriers to care, Knisley believes there are solutions.

She suggests developing relationships with local hospitals, clinics and pediatricians — to better connect them with WIC (Women, Infants and Children) resources and lactation professionals.

She also encourages more formal breastfeeding education for all health care workers, as it is not currently being emphasized in curriculum or continuing education.

“We need to find more ways to employ lactation specialists,” she urged. “We also need to provide education for moms and families on breastfeeding basics.”

Knisley added, “Support for breastfeeding is crucial for success.”

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Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @WendyHoldren

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