Americans should be more supportive of breastfeeding, the U.S. Surgeon General said Thursday.
At a press briefing flanked by breastfeeding advocates -- including director Spike Lee's wife, Tonya Lewis Lee -- Dr. Regina Benjamin detailed the plans of her "Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding," which includes greater cultural support of nursing at work, at home, and in the community.
"One of the most highly effective preventive measures a mother can take to protect her child and her own health is to breastfeed," Benjamin said during the briefing.
Mother's milk has been shown to reduce diarrhea, ear infections, pneumonia, and asthma and protect against obesity in babies, while it diminishes the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in moms, Benjamin said.
While 75 percent of women start out breastfeeding, just 43 percent are still breastfeeding at all by six months, and far fewer -- 13 percent -- were exclusively nursing at that point, according to the latest national data.
In a report accompanying the announcement, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that "for much of the last century, America's mothers were given poor advice and were discouraged from breastfeeding, to the point that [it] became an unusual choice in this country."
Those numbers have crept back up, researchers say, but advocates are pushing especially hard to increase the percentage of moms who breastfeed exclusively for six months.
Benjamin is backing several strategies to do that, across the work place, in policymaking, and in the general community.
She called on employers to offer women a "clean and private place other than a bathroom" to nurse or pump breast milk. They should also offer paid maternity leave and lactation support programs, she said.
Gillian Pon, PhD, vice president of human resources for AOL, touted her company's maternity policies during the briefing. AOL employees are offered a well-baby program that includes maternity and paternity leave, lactation consultations via e-mail or in person, and free breast pumps.
Pon said the program led to a decrease in cesarian sections and preterm births among their employees. Also, a high percentage of those who took leave -- 90 percent -- returned to work.
"It's just the right thing to do for our working mothers, and we've seen its success over and over again," Pon said.
Benjamin also said that physicians should make sure they're well-equipped to care for breastfeeding mothers, and promote breastfeeding to them.
As well, healthcare systems should be sure that maternity care practices provide education and counseling, and hospitals should take steps to ensure their employees are better prepared to care for new mothers and their babies, she added.
Benjamin is also pushing to change society's image of breastfeeding, which can make women hesitant or embarrassed about it.
"The popular culture's sexualization of the breast makes some women want to hide the fact that they're breastfeeding," Benjamin said.
In order to achieve this kind of societal change, Lewis Lee said more people "just need to see it ... Those of us in the mainstream need to come out more and let people know we do it."
Lewis said she breastfed both of her children, now teenagers, when they were infants.
The panelists also called for greater support from family members, especially husbands.
"My husband used to say, 'Oh, I want to taste some,'" Lewis Lee said. "It was a little weird, but I appreciated the sentiment. Men need to begin to understand what breastfeeding is really all about."
The surgeon general's call to action also includes a public service announcement campaign, with ads that will air on 1,200 TV stations across the country.