Breastfeeding numbers hitting new highs in N.L.

The number of women breastfeeding in the province has topped 75 per cent, compared with about 30 per cent in the 1970s.

Statistics more than double from 1970s to 2017

More than 75 per cent of mothers across the province now initiate breastfeeding at the start of their children's lives. (Reuters)

The number of women breastfeeding in Newfoundland and Labrador continues to climb, says the Baby-Friendly Council of NL, with 76 per cent of new mothers in the province breastfeeding their babies at the beginning of their lives, compared with just30 per cent of women initiating nursing in the 1970s. 

That number has even climbed in the last years, with initiation rates at 74.7 per cent in 2016.

"What we've seen is a nice, steady incline in women choosing to initiate breastfeeding," said Heather Gates, a lactation consultant with Labrador Grenfell Health.

"Changing the culture of breastfeeding is not something that happens overnight." 

Gates credits the provincial government with helping spur the change, with breastfeeding identified as an area to devote resources to in its The Way Forward campaign, which Gates said has helped increase advertising and support.

Gates said while numbers have been increasing across the province, it has been somewhat unevenly. with some rural areas lagging behind more urban ones.

"There are other places in the province that pose more challenges, because historically there hasn't been a breastfeeding culture there," she told CBC.

Eastern Health and other health authorities in the province are tracking breastfeeding rates. (CBC)

According to Eastern Health, breastfeeding rates for 2017 are as follows:

  • 82 per cent in St. John's.
     
  • 79 per cent in Labrador City.
     
  • 72 per cent in Gander/Grand Falls-Windsor.
     
  • 69 per cent in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and St. Anthony.
     
  • 60 per cent in Carbonear.
     
  • 58 per cent in Clarenville.
     
  • 51 per cent in Burin.

Getting support

Gates said as the culture changes, breastfeeding rates pick up steam.

"Women tend to do what they see. They follow the patterns of what they've seen their family do," she said.

"When women are surrounded by breastfeeding, and have seen it, it becomes normal to them."

That normalizing can come in the form of mothers, sisters, friends and colleagues. But even if a woman doesn't have those, Gates said the Baby-Friendly Council of NL and the province's health care system offer a multitude of supports, such as lactation consultations or a Facebook group dedicated to breastfeeding mothers.

"I tell my clients all the time it's important to surround yourself with support and the knowledge of women who have breastfed before," she said.

More work needed

Gates said breastfeeding statistics are measured through initiation — mothers beginning breastfeeding at the start of their newborns' lives — and duration, or how long that mother continues to nurse.

When it comes to duration, "women don't breastfeed as long as we would like," said Gates.

She said between four to six months, the breastfeeding rates drop "significantly," following a common trend across Canada.

"We need to bump up our support, from a health-care standpoint," said Gates. "What do we need to do to help women breastfeed longer?"

This was a toolkit developed in 2015 by doctors, nurses and lactation consultants to try to boost the number of breastfeeding mothers in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

Health Canada recommends babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, and then sustained for up to two years alongside appropriate complementary nutrition.

"The mother's body actually has the ability to bump up proteins and antibodies, depending on the baby's needs at the time, and that changes through the course of the breastfeeding relationship. Not at one point will breastmilk ever be the same. It changes, and that's pretty incredible," said Gates.

The Janeway Hospital in St. John's is now giving donated breastmilk to premature babies in its neonatal intensive unit, in order to provide optimal nutrition for the start of those babies' lives.

Formula vs. breastmilk

For women struggling to nurse, or uncomfortable with it altogether, Gates said providing them with information about all their options is essential.

"Information provides empowerment," she said.

She added that even if a woman chooses not to breastfeed, they should be supported.

"I think when women are supported, they shouldn't feel guilty. When they make an informed choice, there should not be any guilt associated with that," she said.

"The important thing is that you're thinking about it, and having that conversation."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.