89% of school nurses believed the benefits of breastfeeding should be taught in high school
When it comes to improving breastfeeding rates, advocates largely all say the same thing: We need more awareness around the benefits of breastmilk for mothers and infants, as well as more community support. In the eyes of some experts, that makes middle and high schools the optimal grounds for beginning the conversation.
"Healthy infant nutrition should be taught as part of statutory personal health and social education in secondary schools," say experts from the United Kingdom's Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in their latest State of Child Health Report, proposing this is a key way to raise breastfeeding rates among women later in life.
Despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and more stating that it's ideal to exclusively breastfeed infants for the first six months, 26% of babies in the United States (and 19% in the UK) are never breastfed. By six months of age, roughly half of babies in the United States no longer receive breast milk.
Time and time again, conversations about how to improve these rates revolve around boosting community support and lessening stigmas against breastfeeding mothers. So the RCPCH really seems to be onto something—and yet existing curriculums for primary school educators only formally exist in the state of New York and Marion County, Indiana.
As an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Leigh Anne O'Connor says she's absolutely in favor of integrating breastfeeding lessons in school health curriculums. But pointing to the existing-yet-underutilized breastfeeding curriculum available to teachers in her home state of New York, she says this is an uphill battle.
"I don't think there is pushback. I think people are just unaware that it exists," she tells Motherly. "Change is hard and I believe the administrations of the schools need to be the catalyst for this change. If we get one principal or teacher to push for this education then there could be ripple effects where it is just part of the curriculum."
Educators and students also seem to be largely open to the idea, with one 2009 study from the Journal of School Nursing finding 89% of school nurses believed the benefits of breastfeeding should be taught to high-school students.
In doing this, there is a big potential for improving teenagers' opinions on breastfeeding: According to a 2016 study published in the International Breastfeeding Journal, "adolescents have a deficit in breastfeeding knowledge and express negative conceptions about breastfeeding." Reinforcing this are other findings that 50% of teenage girls have never seen a woman breastfeed and many young people believe breastfeeding is painful, complicated and restrictive.
Despite these shortcomings, the same set of students surveyed for the 2016 study seemed generally receptive toward breastfeeding education. This suggests that while students may come into the lessons with some misconceptions, presenting information about breastfeeding in an educational setting truly has the power to improve opinions and outcomes.
Having a uniform curriculum in use also addresses the large discrepancy in breastfeeding rates among mothers from different racial and socioeconomic groups by reaching young people who may otherwise not learn about the benefits of breastfeeding.
There is also the question of how the course material would be handled—especially as misconceptions around breastfeeding persist among many adults, including some educators. In putting together a uniform curriculum, the officials in the state of New York and Marion County seemed to have the right idea. Other suggest enlisting lactation consultants to come into schools for the lessons.
According to the 2016 study, the majority of teachers were also supportive of including breastfeeding education in their classrooms. However, the existing shortage of classroom time and resources seems to be the biggest barrier for some opponents to breastfeeding education.
"We've got a situation where 20% of school leavers can't read or write and are essentially unemployable," Chris McGovern, chair of Britain's Campaign for Real Education told the Daily Mail of the RCPCH's proposition. "I'm not trying to diminish the importance of breastfeeding, but schools should be focused on doing what they're supposed to do."
To a lesser extent, some educators and administrators expressed concerns about whether the topic is suitable for male students and whether it promotes teenage pregnancy, despite no research making that link.
Based on other surveys, opponents seem to be in the minority. But it's also worth remembering this isn't an "all or nothing" scenario: Broaching the topic of the benefits of breastmilk in an educational setting is a positive step in the direction of improving community-wide support, breastfeeding rates and health outcomes for mothers and babies.
We say that's well worth a 30-minute primer during health class.