Union City resident Sonnia Rubriche arrived in the United States three months ago, pregnant and camping in her husband’s relatives’ living room until he joined her from Venezuela a few weeks later. When she finally gave birth to her son, her new family was less than supportive of her desire to breastfeed her child.
“They called her a savage,” said Carmen Baker Clark, North Hudson Community Action Corporation’s (NHCAC) Women Infant and Children (WIC) Center Breastfeeding manager, during WIC’s fifth annual health fair held in June. “She received a tremendous amount of pressure to supplement her breastfeeding with formula. They told her the baby was too skinny.”
“People need to trust their babies.” – Carmen Baker Clark
But contrary to common belief, moms do not always need to supplement what nature provides, according to state Lactation Consultant Mary Turbek. Replacing breast milk – which is naturally full of countless beneficial enzymes, amino acids, obesity and cancer-preventing agents, to name just a few – with formula “is not a supplement. It’s a detriment,” she said.
Addressing community-based misconceptions
NHCAC is a local non-profit agency that provides low-cost health services to needy residents in Hudson County. The headquarters is in West New York.
The fair was held to raise awareness within the community about the dangers of childhood obesity and to emphasize the connection between formula feeding and the health problems that result. Statistics show many marked health discrepancies between low income families and those with more wealth, NHCAC CEO Christopher Irizarry explained, and obesity is one of them.
“In the Latino community, there’s such a misconception that if you eat healthy, you’re not going to get full,” he explained. “It’s almost as if people think there is no healthy way of eating that satisfies, and this misconception extends to the children.”
That day, Rubriche came to the fair with her beaming, healthy infant son held close to her body in a sling as he breastfed, with her equally beaming husband by her side. She demonstrated the convenience and mobility of her chosen method by swinging her hands back and forth.
“I don’t have to use a stroller,” she said in Spanish. “It’s better to have him closer, and it makes my life easier. Balance is key, and it’s hard for new mothers to find it.”
Making nature normal again
The push to switch infants from the natural breastfeeding method to formula feeding began during World War II when husbands went off to military service and mothers were forced to work, Clark said.
The practice stuck long after because at that point, “science knew better than nature,” Turbek explained. “Now science tells us how wrong a notion that was.”
The natural way to feed a child had become the unnatural way. Doctors increasingly encouraged women to switch their infants to formula and to set up regimented, scheduled feeding times, which in turn taught babies to ignore the strong evolutionary instincts that dictated optimal, healthy eating habits.
“There are enzymes in breast milk that help the brain determine when to stop eating and when you feel full,” Turbek added. “When a baby is forced to eat when he or she isn’t hungry, these patterns are carried through the rest of their lives. They can no longer self regulate.”
Many of Clark’s clients have set up a feeding schedule with four-hour intervals, even while breastfeeding, and have been told to switch breasts every 15 minutes. Clark insists that not every child fits into this schedule, that the baby should eat when he or she is hungry, and will “pop up” when finished, letting the mother know what they need.
“People need to trust their babies,” Clark said. “They’re being forced to eat beyond the point of satiety, and they stop recognizing when they’re hungry anymore.”
Reestablishing the natural way, which science has proven as the healthier way, and which simple economics has proven to be the more cost-effective way, is the WIC Center’s goal.
“If you raise awareness for the total general population, it becomes more normalized,” Turbek explained. “If we set up an environment for new mothers so that breastfeeding is once again the normal way of doing things, then the family will follow suit, and it’s much more likely to happen. People are afraid to change after things have been done a certain way for such a long time.”
One year of breastfeeding buys a family vacation
“If people were aware that there’s not just a medical benefit to breastfeeding, but economic benefits as well, mothers would be more amped to breastfeed,” Irizarry said.
Clark took out a sliding wheel chart that gave concrete examples of just how much women who exclusively breastfeed and their families can save over the recommended duration of one year.
With the money saved during just one month of exclusive breastfeeding, families can buy a new stroller or playpen. After six months, they can buy a new washer-dryer or a set of living room furniture. Nine months of exclusive breastfeeding saves enough to put a down payment on a car or pay for one year of property taxes, and a full year allows a family to go on a “very nice vacation.”
“In our community, there are a lot of low-income families who have a hard time making ends meet,” Clark said. “You can save so much both in terms of formula and also in terms of future health costs that arise from not breastfeeding.”
“A lot of people don’t realize that exclusively breastfeeding for at least six months is absolutely key to beginning the normal process of healthy weight,” Turbek added. “New Jersey has high breastfeeding rates but low rates of exclusivity. Children’s health and future wellbeing depends on raising that rate.”
The WIC Center is located at 407 39th St. in Union City. For more information or to make an appointment, call (201) 866-4700. WIC services are free and clients will not be turned away if they are undocumented citizens or if they do not have health insurance.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org