Food insecurity is a real issue the world over. There are certainly places in the world where severe food insecurity is more of a problem than in other areas, but it can happen to individuals and families anywhere. And now, there's data that shows that food insecurity can have a real impact on breastfeeding rates. Moms who don't have enough food stop breastfeeding earlier, according to a new study, and it's really heartbreaking.
Women in households that have trouble putting food on the table often stop breastfeeding earlier than others, a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Monday found. The study looked at 10,450 women who responded to a Statistics Canada survey, and found that 17 percent of women surveyed reported some degree of food insecurity. The study discovered that Canadian women who reported food insecurity only exclusively breastfed their babies for about half as long as women who weren’t worried about being able to afford food. In this case, the study defined household food insecurity as "inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints."
The women in the study who reported food insecurity were concerned with affording enough food to feed their families, or they ate less to save money, according to Global News' definition of food insecurity. It's sad that any mother who is facing all the obstacles that come with having a new baby would have to also worry about getting themselves or the rest of their family adequate food.
Half of the women who reported food insecurity in the study stopped exclusive breastfeeding after just two months, Global News reported. After four months, half of the other women did, too. That's not great news, since the World Health Organization recommends that all babies breastfeed exclusively for six months “to achieve optimal growth, development and health," and while breastfeeding for just two months is still good, it's not ideal.
Breastfeeding definitely has its benefits, including a decreased risk of conditions in babies like asthma, eczema, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), among many other benefits, according to research cited by the Office on Women's Health of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Of course, not every woman can or chooses to breastfeed their baby, and that's OK. But food insecurity shouldn't be the reason that they stop.
Ceasing breastfeeding earlier because of food insecurity can unfortunately lead to other economic concerns, according to study co-author Valerie Tarasuk, professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. Tarasuk told Global News:
When somebody stops exclusive breastfeeding, they have to be able to feed their infant another way, and infant formula is very expensive.
Almost four million Canadians have a hard time putting food on the table due to a lack of money, the CBC reported. Tarasuk told the outlet that this study "is a very stark piece of evidence that we're failing some children in this country at a very early age," but I would argue that it makes it clear that mothers and families are being failed as well.
And the study has real impacts for the U.S., as well. The United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service reported that 12.3 percent (or 15.6 million) of U.S. households were food insecure during 2016. Both kids and adults were food insecure in 8 percent of households with children that same year.
Study co-author Lesley Frank, an associate professor of sociology at Acadia University who previously researched the issue, told Global News that food-insecure women may stop breastfeeding because, "They’re so concerned about the nutrition of the baby and thinking that the baby’s hungry and that the baby’s not being fed properly because their breast milk is not adequate, that they stop." So even though breastfeeding is technically free compared to formula, and may seem like an obvious choice for women with economic concerns — including food insecurity — to other people, it's just not that simple.
The bottom line is, mothers already face a lot of obstacles and stigma when it comes to breastfeeding, and no mother should have to worry about food insecurity, particularly if it could impact their choices regarding breastfeeding. This study makes it clear that we need to be better about supporting moms and babies when it comes to feeding both.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.