While the percentage of women breastfeeding their babies continues to increase across the country, a Lakehead University researcher says that's not the case with Aboriginal women.

Karen McQueen recently completed a study of aboriginal mothers in the region that showed 69 per cent started breast feeding, compared with 93 per cent nationally.

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Karen McQueen, associate professor at Lakehead University's School of Nursing, says she'd like to see more support for aboriginal women if they choose to breastfeed their babies. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

She said she was disappointed with the numbers, but encouraged by the fact that aboriginal women in the study made goals for how long they would like to breastfeed - and met those goals. She's also looking forward to the potential of public health programs trying to buck the trend — "whether it's something like peer-support, where we have experienced aboriginal women that support women [who] are having babies for the first time, or whether we have education programs."

Recent recommendations from the Ontario Healthy Kids Panel suggested many ways to make hospitals more baby-friendly, including encouraging more mothers to breastfeed.

10 steps to successful breast-feeding:

  • Have a written breastfeeding policy that is routinely communicated to all health care staff.
  • Train all health care staff in skills necessary to implement this policy.
  • Inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breastfeeding.
  • Help mothers initiate breastfeeding within one half-hour of birth.
  • Show mothers how to breastfeed and maintain lactation, even if they should be separated from their infants.
  • Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breast milk, unless medically indicated.
  • Practise rooming in — allow mothers and infants to remain together 24 hours a day.
  • Encourage breastfeeding on demand.
  • Give no artificial teats or pacifiers (also called dummies or soothers) to breastfeeding infants.
  • Foster the establishment of breastfeeding support groups and refer mothers to them on discharge from the hospital or clinic.

Source: UNICEF

Narrowing the gap

At the Bosom Buddies support group, which meets at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, moms like Amanda Moffat follow the mantra: "breast is best for babies."

Moffat said it was easy to find out the health benefits of breastfeeding.

"From everything that I read and because breastfeeding came so naturally to me, I just thought breast feeding was for us and [my] baby, Zoey, agrees," she said.

McQueen noted the number of women who breast feed has steadily increased since the 1960s. But that's not the case for First Nations women, as McQueen said studies of aboriginal women should rates have remained "fairly stable."

Latching on to peer support

A Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder outreach and child development worker with Anishnawbe Mushkiki Health Centre helped work on the research project.

Sheila Marcinyshyn said there are programs specifically to support aboriginal women, such as a Breast Feeding Peer Support group for Aboriginal women, where women who have breast-fed provide support to other women in their community. First Nations elders also share their experiences breastfeeding. "Some of the women there get support from one another. And [they can tell] some of their stories and what they've gone through," Marcinyshyn said.

She noted it was great to see some of the women who began breastfeeding had not breastfed with their previous children.

"We give them a choice. We can't tell them that they can't come here unless [they] breastfeed. But we try to reinforce the benefits of breastfeeding," she said.

The group also provides an opportunity to "keep giving them information so they are a little more knowledgeable."

McQueen noted positives of breastfeeding include lower rates of infection, lower sudden infant death syndrome, and a reduced rate of childhood obesity. Breast feeding is also more environmentally friendly as there are not bottles or plastic involved, meaning less waste.