Breastfeeding is Still Best
A little knowledge and some help can make breastfeeding easier.
Most people know the importance of breast- feeding. In fact, the World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life, with continued breastfeeding for one to two years. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that over 83% of infants are breastfed at birth. Yet breastfeeding rates fall, with only half still breastfeeding at six months and a little over one-third at one year (CDC Breastfeeding Report Card).
Perhaps knowing more about the benefits and where to get help can nudge local breastfeeding statistics in a positive direction.
Breastfeeding your child has many benefits for a new mother, her family and her child. A simple economic benefit is that breastfeeding is very cost-effective, while infant formula is expensive. A family could spend $2,000 to $4,000 in one year buying formula. Yet breastfeeding adds little to a family’s budget, except for some additions for mom’s healthy diet (about 400 calories more a day).
Breast milk is also easier for your baby to digest—it’s a customized diet that changes as your baby grows. And breastfeeding is also positive for our environment—no manufacturing, shipping or trash.
But more important, breastfeeding protects the mother against reproductive cancers (breast, ovarian, endometrial). And it’s also highly effective in mobilizing fat stores from pregnancy and helping mothers return to pre-pregnant weight more quickly. Plus breastfeeding is good for mothers’ heart and bone health.
Add to that the immense benefits to your new child. Breastfeeding protects infants from dying and significantly reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death. Those who are breastfed are healthier both as infants and adults. Breastfeeding also greatly reduces the chance of infants getting infections—respiratory, gastrointestinal and ear infections.
For infants born early or in need of intensive care, human milk is a life-saving medical intervention. For hospitalized infants, human milk protects them from illness, protects their bowels and brain as well as helping them get discharged sooner from the hospital.
As an added bonus, research has found that breastfeeding makes children smarter. Infants who receive human milk have brains with more white and gray matter and overall bigger brains, which correlates with higher IQ and better development outcomes.
And the impact of breastfeeding is long lasting, influencing a child’s health into adulthood. Adults who were breastfed as children have healthier hearts, less intestinal problems (Chron’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome), lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure.
Quite simply, breast milk is the best food for your baby.
Ideally, a baby should get nothing but breast milk for the first six months. That’s the best start to your child’s life. Continuing to breastfeed for at least a full year has even more far-reaching health benefits for you and your child.
Since pregnant women start making milk in the second trimester, by birth, there’s a milk supply to feed your infant. The first milk—called colostrum—is like a medication or vaccine. There’s only a small amount, but it’s very powerful.
Right after birth it’s important to hold your baby skin-to-skin as many hours of the day as possible. Doing this will naturally awaken feeding cues and prompt breastfeeding.
Maternity nurses or lactation consultants can help new mothers get the basics right—positioning the baby, checking that the baby has latched on properly. A good start in the hospital sets the mother and baby up for success.
Yes, the first two weeks of breastfeeding can be hard work, but it won’t be like that forever! Because a newborn may require feeding every 2 to 3 hours, most new moms won’t have time or energy for much more. Those first 3 to 5 days are a critical period to develop a good milk supply, so make sure the breasts get frequent stimulation and emptying from feeding or pumping. If your baby is having lots of dirty diapers, this tells you that breastfeeding is going well.
A new mother’s only jobs should be to eat, sleep and breastfeed. Before delivery, the mother’s family and support group should assume all the other household duties so the mother can focus on feeding and making milk for her baby.
If you’re separated from your baby, pump early and pump often! Pump within the first hour of your child’s birth and pump every 2 to 3 hours for 8 or more pumping sessions in a 24-hour period. It’s worth investing in a hospital grade pump rental to make this easier and to ensure a great milk supply. Pump rental is less expensive than formula.
There are a few situations in which breastfeeding is not recommended: a mother who has HIV, being treated for cancer with chemotherapy or radiation, or using illegal substances. Although most medications are safe for breastfeeding, check with your doctor. Also, a mother who had a mastectomy cannot make milk for her child, and one who had breast reduction or augmentation may not be able to produce a complete milk supply. An option for these mothers is to seek human milk from other sources after considering risks. Follow professional recommendations and don’t buy milk on the Internet!
If you’re having pain while breastfeeding, get help! In over 90% of cases, pain is caused by the baby not being attached properly to the breast. Have a health care professional observe you breastfeeding to make sure your baby is latched properly.
If your doctor is concerned with your baby’s weight loss after birth or that your baby is not gaining weight quickly enough, it may be recommended that you supplement your baby with formula. If so, it’s important to start pumping with a high-quality breast pump to make sure you develop and maintain a full milk supply. The first two weeks are critical to establish a robust milk supply.
Although not that common, a breastfeeding mom can develop mastitis, so it is important to be aware of the symptoms. If you develop a high fever, your breast is red and painful to the touch, and you feel like you have the flu, call your health care provider.
Find out if your insurance covers home visits from a lactation professional. Or contact a breastfeeding peer counselor, or go to a local breastfeeding support group. Moms who hang out with other breastfeeding moms are more likely to keep breastfeeding. Plus, you make new friends while learning from one another.
For more resources, there’s a National Breastfeeding Helpline (800-994-9662) and helpful website at WomensHealth.gov/Breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding may not always be easy, and it may not initially feel natural. Mothers and their families should understand how important it is to make this early investment in breastfeeding and seek help if they run into challenges.
Diane L. Spatz, Ph.D., RN-Board Certified, Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing, is a professor of Perinatal Nursing and Helen M. Shearer Professor of Nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and researcher in the Lactation Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She received her degrees from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and is the recipient of numerous awards including being an “Edge Runner” of the American Academy of Nursing.
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