Should Babies Born To Prisoners Be Deprived of Mother’s Milk?

Source: The US

As my parents and I sat around a visiting room table with my incarcerated sister, a cry rang out from the table next to us. There, a bawling infant lay cradled in the arms of a visitor who surreptitiously opened her shirt to nurse it. The baby simmered down immediately. My sister averted her eyes.

She was 34 weeks pregnant herself, and she had this to anticipate: 24 hours after giving birth –- in a scheduled, induced labor, with guards standing by and no family permitted –- her newborn would be taken from her. By the time of release, her body would have long stopped producing milk.

Studies show that breast milk plays a powerful role in nurturing babies’ immune systems — reducing the risk of respiratory illness, diarrhea, allergies and sudden infant Death syndrome (SIDS). As they grow older, kids who were breastfed are less likely to develop diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer. Breastfeeding has even been shown to improve lifelong cognition. Thus, the breast milk barrier denies prisoners’ children access to a natural (and cost-free) source of preventive health care.

Few female prisoners are permitted to breastfeed, to use a breast pump to provide frozen breast milk to their babies, or even to “pump and dump” milk so they can breastfeed upon release.

And with mothers placed so far from their babies, few of them (including my sister, who’s four hours from home) will be able to take the step from pumping to skin-to-skin feeding during regular visits. And more broadly, if the early months of a baby’s life are so critical – and maternal connection plays such a large role in healthy development – a primary goal must be to prevent new mothers’ incarceration to the greatest extent possible.

Advocacy programs, with help from state representatives have recently made headway — my sister’s prison has acquired a breast pump. We’re not making communities safer by depriving these infants and their mothers of the early contact and public health benefits that come with breastfeeding. In fact, we are quietly sentencing thousands of babies the second they leave the womb.

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