COLUMBIA — Urmeka Jefferson remembers the first time she lost an infant patient.
“It was a newborn, critically ill. The parents were trying to decide whether to continue with extraordinary measures,” she recalled.
It was in 1996, and Jefferson had just begun working in the neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
A senior nurse took charge, removing the tubes and wires that had been keeping the newborn alive. She swaddled the infant and allowed the parents to hold him one last time.
“It happens all the time," Jefferson said. "But it’s not something you ever get used to."
Infant mortality propelled Jefferson into research at MU's Sinclair School of Nursing after nearly a decade of working in neonatal intensive care units. She is currently working to find ways to improve rates of breastfeeding, particularly among African-American mothers.
“I got to a point where I wanted to find out ways that we could improve care," she said. " I wanted to do more.”
Jefferson began studying the causes of infant deaths and found a strong correlation between high mortality rates and low breastfeeding rates.
“I began to see that in communities with higher rates of sudden-infant death and illnesses that lead to death, breastfeeding rates were very low,” she said.
Although it is still in its early phases, Jefferson’s research is the first of its kind.
“No other study has focused on the intentions of future mothers and the actual rates of those who do breastfeed,” she said.
The problem isn’t that mothers aren’t informed, Jefferson said, it’s that a social stigma exists that causes women to shy away from breastfeeding.
Her studies have shown that college-aged African-American women, despite knowing the health benefits, are unlikely to breastfeed their babies.
“These were college-aged, educated men and women,” Jefferson said. “But there was still a disparity, and it couldn’t be explained away by education.”
Jefferson said she hopes to isolate specific factors that contribute to the social stigma surrounding breastfeeding.
So far, her research has mostly been based on observing conversations and analyzing data collected from surveys. Participants were asked questions to determine their comfort level with women breastfeeding in public.
“Overwhelmingly, both men and women said that they do not want to see it, that it makes them uncomfortable,” Jefferson said.
She pointed out that in most other cultures, breastfeeding is perfectly natural.
“I think it is an American thing. I think for some reason we are uncomfortable with women feeding their babies in public,” she said. “You wouldn’t take your lunch to the bathroom, would you? So why should a woman not be able to feed her baby in a restaurant?”
Jefferson’s next phase of research will follow women who are currently pregnant through the first few months after their babies are born to analyze their attitudes and intentions before birth and determine what factors affect decisions among women who actually breastfeed and those who do not.