A majority of infants in Tennessee are now breastfeeding at six months, a rate that is slightly above the national average and a substantial improvement for the state.
The new data comes after Tennessee has been promoting breastfeeding, even as rates across the South lag behind the rest of the country.
According to national data collected by the Centers for Disease Control, 57 percent of Tennessee babies born in 2014 were still nursing at six months. The national average was 55 percent.
The Tennessee Department of Health has more recent numbers that show 79.8 percent of infants born in 2016 were breastfed — a 20 percent increase since 2010.
It's not always an easy decision for mothers. In the hospital, Sharde Curry of Nashville tried breastfeeding her first child, nine years ago. But she quickly became overwhelmed.
"You think, 'OK, this is going to be a piece of cake,' " she recalls.
No one prepared her for the fact that milk production takes work and newborns don't always cooperate either. Then there was pumping at the Pancake Pantry, where she's now the general manager.
"Like, when am I going to have time to step away and breastfeed?" she asked herself. "And not only once, but maybe two to three times a day?"
With her third child, who is now 1, she made a commitment — partially inspired by getting involved with the Nashville Breastfeeding Coalition which was launched by the Metro Health Department. She ended up breastfeeding her daughter almost exclusively for eight months. She says colleagues were willing to clear out the office when needed. Her restaurant is one of about 1,000 businesses (see a directory here) that have joined a state program to welcome breastfeeding.
Five years ago, the Tennessee Department of Health also launched a 24/7 hotline that coaches hundreds of parents on the verge of quitting every month. Lactation consultants took 1,571 calls in the first three months of 2018 and then made follow-up calls four weeks later.
State health officials have also been recognizing hospitals that emphasize breastfeeding education with new mothers, encouraging them to achieve "Baby-Friendly" status with the WHO and UNICEF. Two hospitals in Middle Tennessee — Saint Thomas Midtown and Maury Regional — have achieved the designation.
All of the focus on the health benefits of breastfeeding can be hard on new mothers. Sharde Curry says she's been on the receiving end of the rising pressure. So even though she encourages fellow mothers to breastfeed — including her own employees — she tries to recognize that mothers have their own priorities and physical limitations.
"It is a fine line between becoming that mom that's like, 'Shame on you, you're not breastfeeding your child,' " she says.
But for those who can, Curry has become a believer that the benefits go far beyond saving money on baby formula. She says she remained motivated to breastfeed her daughter by considering that she was providing every bit of her baby's nutrition. It also helped her lose her "baby weight," she says.
Tennessee has done more than some states in the South to promote breastfeeding, and the improving rates seem to reflect that. But they’re still shy of national targets and nowhere close to states like Massachusetts and Minnesota, where the latest national figures show roughly two-thirds of infants are still breastfeeding at six months old.