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Note: This Q&A first published in Mississippi Today’s InformHer newsletter. Subscribe to our free women and girls newsletter to read stories like this monthly.
Dr. Christina Glick is a neonatologist who has had a career-long interest in human milk diet for premature infants and breastfeeding for all babies. She also runs a free-standing breastfeeding clinic in Jackson, Mississippi Lactation Services, to continue and expand her advocacy efforts for the many benefits of breastfeeding.
Mississippi Today spoke with Glick this week about the benefits of breastfeeding, the stigma around it that exists in Mississippi and how the larger culture around breastfeeding in America needs to change.
Editor’s note: This Q+A has been edited for length and clarity.
Mississippi Today: Why is breast milk important for the health of babies, and especially preterm babies?
Dr. Christina Glick: Breast milk in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) has been shown to be absolutely life saving. Fewer babies die when they’re given a breast milk diet. That should convince all of us that it’s absolutely important, right? There’s a couple of things that breast milk does that are life saving. One, it reduces the number of infections that babies have. One of the things that premature babies die from in the NICU is bloodstream infections and they are actually reduced by using a breast milk diet. There’s also necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a catastrophic intestinal infection that has a very high mortality rate. (NEC typically happens within the first 2 weeks of life in babies who are fed formula instead of breast milk. In this condition, bacteria invade the wall of the intestine.) We can really reduce the rate of NEC infections when babies are fed breast milk instead of formula. It goes almost to zero when there’s an exclusive breast milk diet, which is just phenomenal.
Some of the more subtle things breast milk does is that it changes the bacterial microbiome of babies, and when we establish a normal, healthy microbiome from the newborn period, we think it actually changes lifelong health. That’s one of the things that we’ve lost when we use formula and we cannot replicate that using probiotics. There’s no way to do it other than using fresh breast milk.
There’s a lot of stuff that breast milk does that is really sort of magical, and that we are only now beginning to understand. And we think that the longer and more intensive research that goes into it, we’re going to learn more about these kinds of benefits.
MT: As you know, in Mississippi, one of every seven babies is born preterm. We also have the highest rates of preterm birth, infant mortality, child mortality, low birthweight and neonatal mortality. Despite all these issues, we also have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the nation. Why do you think the stigma around breastfeeding still exists here, even though it offers so many benefits?
CG: I’ve had my breastfeeding clinic for about seven years now, and what I’ve noticed that has a really profound effect on women breastfeeding is the culture that they live in. So that includes how their mothers and their grandmothers fed. One of the most common things I hear is someone coming in and saying, ‘my mother says I need to use formula because I’m not making enough milk. That’s how I was fed and I’m fine.’ And so it’s those kinds of voices that really discourage women from breastfeeding. And so we need to get the breastfeeding rates up in our whole community so that the mothers and grandmothers and neighbors and sisters have all breastfed, and then they know about the breastfeeding journey so they know how to counsel the new mother who is struggling with low milk supply and a hungry baby. So that first answer isn’t give that baby a bottle of formula, it’s let’s breastfeed or a little more often, so we can increase your supply. There’s a lot of confusing information that exists just culturally about what normal feeding is. And when we live in a formula culture, that’s not good information for babies who are breastfeeding.
MT: In recent years, the discussion around working mothers’ needs around breastfeeding has become more prominent. But any gains in workplace accommodations for breastfeeding mothers has been concentrated in wealthier, whiter workplaces. I was hoping you could talk a bit about that disparity.
CG: People that work hourly wage jobs tend not to be given adequate breaks for breastfeeding. Nor are they given an adequate place to breastfeed. The hourly wage workers are often told to go pump in the bathroom. That’s like saying ‘go eat lunch in the bathroom.’ That’s gross! So, there needs to be universal, safe, clean and private places to pump for mothers who are working. And that just doesn’t happen except in the white collar environment. You know, if you’re a banker, or a lawyer or whatever, you’re going to have a private office, and you can certainly have a lot more flexibility with your hours and how long you’re going to break to go pump. But if you’re working where there’s no place to pump, it’s going to be very, very hard to get adequate pump sessions and to continue to be able to provide milk for your baby.
MT: What do you think about how breastfeeding is handled in America and what needs to change there?
CG: You’ll find that in countries where breastfeeding is standard, even the taxicab drivers will turn around and say to the mamas when there’s a crying baby, ‘well feed your baby.’ We hide breastfeeding here. We don’t breastfeed very well in public. And until we begin to have that as a perfectly normal part of our standard behavior, it’s going to interfere with our breastfeeding rates. I want to have mamas and grandmas that have the expertise in breastfeeding, so new moms don’t need me as much. I mean, there’s gonna be a need for me and my clinic no matter what, but I want there to be that community support where they don’t have to come to me for every little problem in their breastfeeding because they’re getting that support at home.