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Encouraging Breastfeeding, One Parishioner at a Time

New research finds low-income women who attend regular religious services are more likely than non-churchgoers to breastfeed their infants.
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Health educators are perpetually frustrated by the low rate of breastfeeding among American women.  But a pair of sociologists has pinpointed a segment of the population that is clearly open to the concept but apparently could use some help in sustaining this health-promoting behavior: low-income churchgoers.

A new analysis of nearly 5,000 American infants and their mothers—most of whom were unwed women living in urban areas—revealed a striking pattern. Sixty-six percent of the women who attended church once a week or more breastfed their newborns, compared to 48 percent of those who never attended religious services.

However, within six months after the baby’s birth, the gap between the two groups of women had narrowed to only “marginal significance.” Regular churchgoers were more likely to begin breastfeeding, but for whatever reason, many did not sustain the practice.

This information could provide an opening to public health officials, according to Florida State University sociologist Amy Burdette, who co-authored the paper with Natasha Pilkauskas. It is published in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers analyzed two waves of data from Princeton University’s Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which focused on births at 75 randomly selected hospitals in 20 U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000. About three-quarters of the babies were born to unwed mothers.

The women were interviewed shortly after giving birth, and again one year later; they provided information about their age, education level, religious affiliation, and how often they attended services. The vast majority were self-described Christians; 1.3 percent were Muslims, 6.3 percent were affiliated with another non-Christian faith, and 11 percent had no religious affiliation.

“Our analyses … indicate that mothers who frequently attend religious services are more likely to initiate breastfeeding than are mothers who never attend services,” the researchers write. Initiate, but not necessarily continue for the recommended six months.

From one perspective, it was not surprising that many women who began breastfeeding did not sustain the practice. As a study published earlier this year revealed, mothers who breastfeed for six months or more often suffer prolonged losses of earnings. Low-income single mothers may have no choice but to return to their jobs soon after giving birth, making long-term breastfeeding problematic.

Burdette and Pilkauskas suggest religiously influenced attitudes and behaviors, as well as “church-based social networks,” may help women commit to the practice in spite of such obstacles.

“Our findings suggest that religious communities may provide an opportunity for health educators to reach a population of women who are willing to breastfeed but may be in need of additional resources to sustain breastfeeding,” Burdette said in a follow-up exchange. “Other research has shown that church-based health interventions have been effective, particularly in reaching more disadvantaged groups (like the women in our sample).”

A separate study of strategies to support breastfeeding, published in July, concluded that mothers benefit from “guidance that supports their self-efficacy and feelings of being capable and empowered, and is tailored to their individual needs.”

A well-organized community of faith is well-positioned to provide precisely such support.