Merilyne Emmons holds her daughter, Annabelle Grace, at the University of Louisville Hospital. | Photo by Darla Carter

When Merilyne Emmons gave birth last year, she wanted to give her daughter a strong start in life, so she opted to breastfeed the newborn instead of turning to baby formula.

Emmons, 26, of Louisville was attracted partly by the immune-boosting benefits of breastfeeding, which helps to protect babies from various diseases and infections.

Breastfeeding also gives babies access to colostrum, a thick, nutrient-rich substance that can provide all the nutrition the child needs during the first few days of life, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“That colostrum in the beginning and me passing like my antibodies to her, that was mostly what had me sold on breastfeeding,” Emmons said. “… You get the most benefits from breastfeeding.”

Although experts, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, highly recommend breastfeeding, it can be difficult for women to stick with it because of obstacles, such as anxiety, exhaustion and workplace hurdles. There also may be a lack of information and support, depending on the woman’s environment, or trouble getting accustomed to breastfeeding.

“It’s natural, but it’s not instinctual; there is a learning curve,” said Jennifer Bowman, acting administrator of the WIC and Healthy Start programs at the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. “And so it’s very important not to get discouraged in those first few weeks of breastfeeding.”

Kentucky has seen some improvements in the percentage of infants who are breastfed, such as those breastfeeding at 6 months and 1 year, but it still lags behind the nation and many other states in various categories.

Looking at 2015 births, Kentucky’s percentage of ever-breastfed infants was 73.9 percent, down slightly from the prior year’s 74.9 percent and trailing behind the nation’s 83.2 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. However, Kentucky’s percentage of ever-breastfed infants only hovered around 60 percent in 2009. The figures are gleaned from a national survey that asks whether the child was ever breastfed or fed breast milk.

The percentage of Kentucky infants breastfeeding at 6 months was 48.6 percent, up from 44.4 percent in 2014 and 35.3 percent in 2013, according to the foundation. Those statistics, which still lag behind the nation’s, include breastfeeding to any extent, regardless of whether the baby was given other liquids or solids.

The percentage of infants breastfeeding at 6 months is improving in Kentucky. That refers to breastfeeding to any extent, with or without the addition of complementary liquids or solids.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done getting people to understand the importance of breastfeeding,” Bowman said. “… But as a whole, we are moving in the right direction.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding (meaning no formula) for about the first six months of a child’s life, with continuation of breastfeeding for one year or longer as mutually desired by the mother and baby.

“I think moms should consider it for the baby’s health, first of all,” said Shannon Perez, a lactation consultant at the University of Louisville Hospital. “Breast milk is tailored specific to their baby, specific to the baby’s gestation as well. Milk for a preterm baby is different than milk for a full-term baby, and their milk changes as the baby gets older.”

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Other benefits of breastfeeding, according to the CDC, include lowering the child’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome, obesity and other conditions, such as asthma, diabetes and ear infections.

“It’s just so good for babies,” Perez said.

Moms also achieve personal gains, such as reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure, according to the CDC.

Experts say two of the keys to successful breastfeeding are getting educated about the practice and having people to turn to for support, whether it’s a lactation consultant, a support group or an educated relative.

“I think it’s incredibly important to have supportive people,” said Jenny Claire Hoffmann, who works with several local organizations, such as the Family Health Centers, La Leche League and Mama’s Hip, to teach women about breastfeeding.

Hoffmann, who lives in New Albany, also has firsthand breastfeeding experience as a mother of five.

“If we have a lot of naysayers or people who are pressuring us to give up or pressuring us to give formula rather than get over the speed bumps, that again is really hard on somebody’s confidence, especially if you’re a first-time mom and you don’t really know what to expect,” she said. “And it’s hard to sort-of speak up for yourself sometimes.”

Shannon Perez, a lactation consultant at the University of Louisville Hospital, gives breastfeeding advice to new moms. | Photo by Darla Carter

Hospitals often have lactation consultants available who can help address the concerns of mothers and fathers on topics, such as positioning, latching, and understanding whether the child is getting enough milk. Those at the University of Louisville Hospital answer questions while the mom is in the hospital as well as after they’ve been discharged.

“Anybody can call us and ask us a breastfeeding question,” Perez said.

Other staffers at the hospital’s Center for Women & Infants also have had breastfeeding training, so they can answer questions, too, Perez said. “We all understand how important it is for babies to get a good start.”

In the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health & Wellness’ WIC program, some women turn to Stacey Taylor, who advises them on breastfeeding and helps them resolve crises.

“I answer questions,” said Taylor, a breastfeeding peer adviser for WIC. “I go support them at their homes. If they call me in the middle of the night, I answer my phone and talk them through whatever heartache that they’re going through at the time,” which could be a latching issue or the fact that the baby has been screaming all night.

The department also offers breastfeeding classes for WIC participants and has the Mother’s Milk Club, which is similar to a support group, for the general public.

Breastfeeding also is emphasized with participants of Healthy Start, a program aimed at improving African-American infant mortality rates in Louisville. The practice is discussed during home visits before and after the baby’s birth.

Moms and other interested persons also get a chance to ask questions about breastfeeding and other baby-related topics at community baby showers that are held as part of Healthy Start.

For some women, relatives also can be a good source of information and support. For instance, dads can serve as non-judgmental listeners and advocates for the breastfeeding mom, Hoffmann said. “It’s really important to have family on your side.”

Emmons began breastfeeding at the hospital and says it’s been rewarding. | Photo by Darla Carter

Emmons, a licensed practical nurse, has been able to successfully breastfeed her daughter, Annabelle Grace, for about two-and-a-half months and plans to continue until the child turns 1.

“Breastfeeding for me has been very rewarding and I love the bond it has created and continues to create between my daughter and I,” she said.

Emmons said she received confidence from having relatives, such as her mother and sister, who breastfed and getting educated by a lactation consultant who came to a prenatal group that she was in before her daughter was born. “It was real informative,” she said.

However, there have been challenges, such as variations in the baby’s feeding schedules and the child having growth spurts.

“She was feeding every two to three hours on the dot but now has been closer to every three to four hours and sometimes four to six hours through the night,” Emmons said.

As a member of the Army Reserves, Emmons also has another challenge to surmount. She’s preparing to be separated from the baby for three weeks of military training. She also will be going back to school to complete her bachelor of science degree in nursing.

So far, “(I’ve) saved well over 100 bags of breast milk, ranging from 2-6 ounces,” Emmons said. “… That way, my husband will still be able to feed her breast milk while I’m gone.”

When it comes to breastfeeding and the challenges that it brings, having a backup plan and knowing who to call for help is always important, Hoffmann said.

“A lot of times when I see people not able to meet their goals, they didn’t have that good support and people who were giving them the kind of advice that they needed to keep going,” she said.

Photo by Darla Carter

Educational opportunity

The Center for Women & Infants at UofL Hospital will offer free prenatal and newborn care classes this year, covering breastfeeding and other topics, such as how the body changes during pregnancy, signs of true labor and comfort techniques.

You can register online for a series of five weekly classes or a daylong weekend session. Phone: 502-562-3094.

Darla Carter
Darla Carter is a hometown girl who recently joined the staff of Insider Louisville to mostly cover health. She previously served as a longtime health and fitness writer for The Courier-Journal, where she also worked for the Metro, Neighborhoods and Features departments. Prior to that, the award-winning journalist wrote for newspapers elsewhere in Kentucky and Tennessee, covering a range of topics, from education to courts. She's a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where she studied journalism and philosophy, and is the proud mom of two young children.