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Breastfeeding could significantly cut illnesses in aboriginal babies

A new study has found that encouraging breastfeeding among First Nations, Inuit and Métis mothers would be a simple way to significantly cut down the high rates of common infection — and even deaths — seen in aboriginal babies in Canada.

SIDS, gastrointestinal infection, respiratory tract infection and ear infections could all drop

Nearly four out of five aboriginal mothers, including Laetitia Levavasseur, breastfeed their babies. A paper published today shows that raising that number even higher could significantly reduce the number of common infections in aboriginal babies. (CBC)

A new study has found that encouraging First Nations, Inuit and Métis mothers to breastfeed would be a simple way to significantly cut down the high rates of common infection — and even deaths — seen in aboriginal babies in Canada.

Dr. Kathryn McIsaac, with the Centre for Research on Inner City Health of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, says even she was surprised by the results.

"I think this really gives policy makers and government officials what we need to be putting emphasis into breastfeeding programs," she says.

Dr. Kathryn McIssac says the onus should be on hospitals and health centres to take the lead on breastfeeding. (submitted)

All babies benefit from breastfeeding, according to McIsaac's paper published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health. But aboriginal babies could benefit even more so because they suffer higher rates of common ear infections, respiratory tract infections, gastrointestinal infections and SIDS.

After crunching the numbers, McIsaac estimated that breastfeeding on reserve First Nations babies could cut ear infections by 11 per cent, gastrointestinal infections by 41 per cent, hospitalizations for lower respiratory tract infections by 26 per cent and SIDS by 25 per cent.

Breastfeeding could also make a significant dent in those conditions for off reserve First Nations, Inuit and Métis babies.

Right now the rate of breastfeeding among indigenous women in Canada (78 per cent) is about 10 per cent lower than the general population (87 per cent).

Hospitals, health centres should take the lead

Levavasseur, who has two small children in Yellowknife, knew she wanted to breastfeed her children, even though it wasn't easy. (CBC)

Laetitia Levavasseur, a mother of two in Yellowknife, knew she wanted to breastfeed her children, even though it wasn't easy. "I was like, I don't want to do this anymore. It hurts. I'm done."

Levavasseur was fortunate to have a midwife and a husband to encourage her. Many smaller, remote communities don't offer any programs for support.

Promoting breastfeeding among aboriginal women is one solution, McIsaac says. 

"However, we recommend shifting the bulk of the responsibility for failure to breastfeed away from the woman and onto the health-care system, where hospitals and community-based health programs should take the lead."

McIsaac recommends programs delivered through the health care system, by indigenous people and for indigenous people.

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