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Nationality + Breastfeeding = Wide Range of Beliefs

There’s an inspiring piece in the New York Times this week about a hospital that is making an effort to better understand the diverse backgrounds of their patients, and getting great results.

The Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens serves an extraordinarily diverse community, with recent immigrants from as many 100 countries living in the area. The hospital staff has been looking more closely at the ethnic backgrounds of patients in order to better treat them.

For example, they’ve been learning about how breastfeeding is perceived by women from different countries. When doctors surveyed new mothers about the importance of mother’s first milk, colostrum, they discovered that:

“… in Bangladesh colostrum is considered impure and is usually discarded and that Bangladeshi women had no idea that it is, in fact, highly nutritious. Chinese women planning to send their children to be raised their first few years by relatives in China, a common practice, will not breast-feed. And though breast-feeding is common in rural Mexico, Mexican women here are often eager to give their babies formula.”

Patricia de Lima, director of the breastfeeding initiative at Elmhurst explains that Mexicans, “come across the border, they see bottles and they think, ‘That’s American, that’s the way to go.’ It’s kind of a status thing.”

The results of the breastfeeding survey have helped the way lactation consultants work with patients.”As more immigrants crowd its waiting rooms, Elmhurst Hospital is joining a growing number of hospitals in New York and across the country that are going beyond hiring interpreters and offering translated paperwork and are adopting practices intended to improve care for an increasingly diverse patient population,” writes Fernanda Santos in the Times.

It makes absolute sense that each patient’s cultural background–including diet, religious beliefs and traditions–be taken into account when treating medical conditions and supporting new mothers. I am always happy to see any medical approach that looks deeper into cultural differences and adapts accordingly.

A doula I know recently told me an incredible story about an obese mother in Israel who was given support for breastfeeding by lactation consultants who treated her anxiety about her body in a respectful manner. They helped her with positioning, but they were also very patient and gave her a lot of privacy. She cried when she finally learned to breastfeed telling the lactation specialists that this didn’t happen with her previous babies as she felt too ashamed of her body in front of insensitive hospital staff.

This story, and the stories from Elmhurst, illustrate how unique these experiences are for women and how important it is for medical staff to acknowledge this and adjust their care accordingly.

photo: Mylissa/Flickr

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