When 19-year-old Delila Jean Wilson of Crab Orchard gave birth to her son Laken on Oct. 17, the first-time mom was initiated into motherhood with the typical yet intensely unique and personal connection that many moms describe when they first see their newborns.
“I was mesmerized,” Wilson recalled. “I couldn’t believe that I had done it.
“He was absolutely gorgeous,” she added.
The staff at Raleigh General Hospital was supportive and helpful to Wilson and her husband, she recalled.
When nurses whisked Laken from her to place him under the heating lamp several feet from her bed, Wilson said the mother-son bond had already been established.
“They put him underneath the heating lamp, and I looked over and he was looking at me,” she said. “It was just amazing.”
In the hospital, Wilson was asked a perfectly natural question: Would she be breastfeeding?
“I wanted to breastfeed because I know that there is a lot of vitamins and good things that the baby needs from breastmilk,” said Wilson. “I did plan to breastfeed.”
When friends arrived to visit the newborn, said Wilson, they came with their own ideas about how she should feed him.
“I felt pressure as soon as the baby was born, because they would come to see me in the hospital, and he would be having problems latching on, and they were like, ‘You’re doing good, you can do this.’
“I wanted to do it because I knew it was good for him, but I felt pressured — not by the nurses or doctors but by close friends.”
At home, she struggled through breastfeeding for three weeks until she finally decided to offer Laken formula.
The decision that should’ve been about her maternal relationship with Laken seemed to be a decision that she had to defend socially, she recalled.
The “landmine” Wilson stepped into with her decision to bottle feed is bound up with medical studies, politics and governmental initiatives — and local moms who chose not to breastfeed say they’ve experienced negative reactions from others for their decision.
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When first lady Michelle Obama remarked in 2011 that she supports making it easier for moms to breastfeed since “kids who are breastfed longer have a lower tendency to be obese,” several government initiatives ensued.
Citing the undeniable, scientific health benefits of breastfeeding to both children and women, the Obama administration relaxed the tax structure so that breastfeeding moms could claim deductions for their breastpumps.
Mrs. Obama publicly encouraged moms — especially African-American moms —to breastfeed and asked that workplaces be more “pump-friendly.”
She asked hospitals to ensure that the baby is in the room with the mother following birth, so that babies can breastfeed instead of being given formula.
Mrs. Obama emphasized that she wasn’t “telling women to breastfeed.”
“Breastfeeding is a very personal choice for every woman,” the first lady’s spokesperson told reporters in February 2011. “We are trying to make it easier for those who choose to do it.”
Along with the addition of breastfeeding support to existing government programs — Women, Infants and Children (WIC) began offering lactation support and Fathers Supporting Breastfeeding, a program aimed at educating fathers on ways to support their babies’ breastfeeding moms — a maelstrom ensued.
The subject of breastfeeding, it seemed, brought out the claws of politicians and pundits nationwide.
Minnesota Republican representative Michele Bachmann dubbed the initiative “the nanny state,” and a number of true-blue liberals headed to the blogosphere to agree with her.
“I support what the first lady is trying to do, but I also think there’s already enough pressure on working moms,” a liberal mom in Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote. “There are plenty of mothers who love and care for their children, but simply can’t pump — for time, work or physical reasons.”
On the flip side, some red-blooded Republicans found themselves supporting Michelle Obama’s initiative.
“I am a conservative,” a writer on an Arkansas Times blog penned. “I am also a breastfeeding advocate. This (conservative reaction) is just stupid.”
As breastfeeding women head to their state capitols to argue for their right to publicly breastfeed and to ask for clean places to pump at work, women in some parts of the world and country are arguing that their right not to breast-feed is being compromised.
In 2012, then-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomburg initiated “Latch On NYC,” an effort that encouraged the city’s hospital maternity wards to hide formula and to require nurses to note a medical reason for offering formula to a newborn.
“Infant formula is not poison,” wrote one blogger — a self-identified mom who had breastfed — on Slate.com. “Take away infant formula and the millions of women who fuel our economy would no longer be able to work, because American employers are certainly not going to pay them to stay home and breastfeed.”
In January, The United Arab Emirates passed a law that mothers must breast-feed for two years or face criminal penalties.
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In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that among infants who were between 19 and 35 months old, around three-quarters were breastfed at birth, but only 12 percent were still nursing at a year old.
In West Virginia — where only 25 percent of women choose to breast-feed, according to Beckley pediatrician Dr. Carlos Lucero — Wilson and others discussed the social censure they’ve encountered for their decision to use formula.
“When I stopped breastfeeding, it actually took me a while to ‘come out’ to some of my close friends, because they had made comments that were like, ‘You need to keep breastfeeding,’” Wilson said. “I kind of felt a little bit that they looked down on me.
“They were condescending, and it bothered me for a while.”
On social network sites, Wilson said, some moms made rude comments, so she left the forums.
“I adamantly believe that it is a mother’s right to choose how to feed her baby,” said Wilson. “I don’t judge other moms for breastfeeding.”
Joy Browning of Sophia, a former nurse, said she still experiences some negativity from acquaintances when she tells them she only breastfed her daughter, Teyla, now 4, for a few weeks.
“I dislike being made to feel like I was a failure when I exchange stories with mommy friends about our kids’ infant years and they go, ‘You didn’t breastfeed?’ and then, ‘But why not?’ with that judgmental look in their eyes,” said Browning. “I’m not against breastfeeding, but it’s not for everyone.”
Browning added that Teyla is healthy and has never had an ear infection.
Kimberly Miller, 40, of Oak Hill, said she also experienced negative judgments from others when she gave her daughter, Ava, now 5, infant formula.
“I couldn’t breast-feed because of my medication,” said Miller, a medical assistant. “I took it safely during my pregnancy, but it is excreted more in breast milk.
“You wouldn’t believe all of the ‘Why don’t you breast-feed?’”
Several formula-feeding moms said they never intended to breastfeed.
“I had no desire to breastfeed, didn’t even try,” said Kristin Meadows, 39, formerly of Oak Hill. “I just didn’t want to.
“My kids are 15, 10 and 5 and none has ever had an ear infection, strep or anything else major.
“I don’t regret for a second not breastfeeding them. If I had to go back and do it over, I would do the same thing.”
Some mothers reported they got no support when they decided to breastfeed.
Crystal Paige, 35, recalled that friends first thought she was too small to carry twins and then said she was too small to breastfeed them.
When Mitchell and Madelyn were born prematurely nine months ago, Paige breastfed, anyway.
After a month of pumping, Paige said she realized she had to switch to formula to meet their needs.
“I always laugh and say they didn’t like to drink from the tap,” said Paige, of Beckley. “They were on a very strict schedule...and I’m not a Jersey cow.”
Everyone supported her switch to formula, she said.
“I didn’t get the negative reaction I know a lot of people do,” she said. “I got more negative comments when I was trying to breastfeed.”
She added that the twins are currently healthy, and she doesn’t regret giving them formula.
One mom who breastfed said she tries to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude toward women who use infant formula.
Audrey Smith, 38, of Lester, breastfed her two sons exclusively until they were around 2 years old.
Smith worked full-time while breastfeeding her first son and ate healthy foods while breastfeeding both, she said.
“I have to admit it is hard for me to understand why some moms don’t (breastfeed),” she said. “I’m sure some have medical reasons, or physical limitations, or maybe they’re putting things in their own bodies they know would be bad for their babies.
“But when I find myself critical of those moms who simply choose to not breastfeed, I need only remind myself that the woman I respect most, my own mother, simply chose not to breastfeed.”
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Despite the debate among politicians and parents, medical professionals agree that “breast is best” in most cases.
Kathy Bailey, RN, MSN, a lactation consultant at Raleigh General Hospital, urged women to be educated about the benefits of breastmilk.
“Breastfed babies are healthier,” she said. “Breastmilk is nutritious, it helps the baby’s immune system, and it’s species-specific.”
Every mom makes the milk that her own baby needs, passing her immunities on to her little one, said Bailey.
“Every time she (breastfeeds), it’s like the baby is getting an immunization,” she said.
Breastfed babies aren’t as likely to develop diabetes, allergies and other illnesses, or to become obese, she said.
They have fewer ear infections and become sick less often, she said.
“Breastmilk is the perfect choice,” emphasized Bailey.
Breastfeeding helps mothers relax due to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is related to bonding in humans, and it also offers protection against breast cancer.
Bailey strongly encourages moms to breastfeed and urges fathers to offer breastfeeding support.
She added, however, that the staff at RGH respects that the mother makes the final decision.
“We will respect your decision, and we’ll help you with bottle feeding,” she said.
While breastfeeding aids in the bonding of mother and baby, Bailey said mothers who choose formula shouldn’t be fearful that they aren’t as bonded with their babies.
She said the bonding process starts during pregnancy and continues in the delivery room with “skin-to-skin contact,” which can be done during bottle-feedings.
Baby massages and reading to the baby are additional ways moms and babies bond, she explained.
Dr. Carlos Lucero, a strong proponent of breastfeeding, said the breastfeeding rate among mothers of his patients is an estimated 35 to 45 percent — 10 percent higher than the state average.
“I have been told by the nurses in the hospital that I have the highest number of breastfeeding mothers, and it’s because the obstetricians do some education, but I reinforce it at the time the baby’s born.
“So many mommies that were going to bottle feed change on the first or second or third day and continue to breastfeed for at least a few months,” he said. “I am a little persistent, and what I tell them is, don’t feel I am putting pressure for you to do it, because my main concern is the baby.
“It will be good for your baby if you breastfeed.”
Noting that some women are pressured not to breast-feed by well-meaning, older female relatives, Lucero said he is sure to educate new moms on the many benefits of breastfeeding so that if they choose not to breastfeed, it’s an educated choice.
For moms who would rather formula-feed, he advised that they take special care to keep the baby and their hands clean, to keep the baby away from those who are ill and that they don’t offer solid foods until the baby is 6 months old.
Local breastfeeding support is available through Raleigh General Hospital, AccessHealth Associates and WIC.
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