Public health officials highlight the importance of breastfeeding, not just during National Breastfeeding Month in August, but year-round.

New Jersey continued to improve its breastfeeding rates this year as experts emphasize the priority for mothers to breastfeed when possible. Health officials recognized several South Jersey programs and services for their work with mothers and infants.

“Breastfeeding provides a healthy, sustainable source of nutrition and immunization for infants,” Cathleen D. Bennett, state Department of Health commissioner, said in a statement. “The best food for a baby’s first year of life is breast milk.”

The state saw some of the highest breastfeeding rates in recent years among mothers in 2014, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2017 Breastfeeding Report Card.

Nearly 84 percent of mothers had ever breastfed in 2014, according to the report, the highest rate in six years.

The report also showed that while the number of mothers who breastfeed decrease as infants get older, about 35 percent still breastfed when their children were 1 year old, a 15.6 percent increase from the previous year.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of an infant’s life, and continuation for the first year or beyond. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to 2 years or older.

Experts said breast milk strengthens the immune system of babies, improves digestion and is of better nutritional value than regular milk. Other benefits include the establishment of a strong mother-baby bond.

“For infants, breastfeeding helps prevent hunger, increases nourishment and protects against obesity,” Bennett said. “For mothers, breastfeeding can be a satisfying and empowering experience, which should be supported by employers, the health care system and the community.”

New Jersey law protects the right to breastfeed in public, permitting every mother to breastfeed in any place within a place of public accommodation, including most private businesses or buildings that are open to the general public, where she is otherwise entitled to be.

While many workplaces have designated areas for nursing women, Asseblymen Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, and Bob Andrzejczak, D-Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, introduced a bill last year that expands protections to include women who work at small businesses.

It would also require employers to provide break time each day and a private location, other than a bathroom stall, for women to express milk.

The state Assembly Labor Committee approved the bill Oct. 13, but no further progress has been made in the Legislature.

In 2011, the state health department launched the New Jersey Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative to encourage and recognize hospitals that promote and support exclusive breastfeeding.

Among the top 10 state hospitals that achieved “Baby-Friendly” status included AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Galloway Township and Southern Ocean Medical Center in the Manahawkin section of Stafford Township.

The New Jersey Women, Infants and Children program provides breastfeeding promotions and support to low-income women across the state, including at locations in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties.

Women who exclusively breastfeed receive the largest WIC food package to support their own nutritional needs while nursing, state health officials said.

The first annual statewide WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Meeting was held in May to provide skills training for peer counselors and International Board Certified Lactation Consultants, who work at local WIC agencies.

For more information and resources on breastfeeding in New Jersey, visit nj.gov/health/fhs/wic/nutrition-breastfeeding

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Contact:

609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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