Gleaning a better understanding of the mechanics of breastfeeding and the numerous benefits it offers both Mother and Baby may help keep you motivated and increase your chances of success.
Breastfeeding is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying aspects of new motherhood, but mastering the art of breastfeeding takes time. The first few weeks can be difficult, and many women give up before they, and their babies, experience the innumerable benefits. Understanding how breastfeeding improves your health and the health of your baby can keep you motivated and increase your chances of success. Here are 10 great reasons to keep trying.
Breast Milk: The Perfect Food
Breast milk is fluid (pardon the pun). It changes over time to meet the developing, nutritional needs of your baby.
Immediately after birth, a woman’s breasts produce colostrum. This concentrated form of breast milk is packed with disease-fighting antibodies, carbohydrates, protein, essential vitamins and minerals, including Vitamins B, E, Zinc, and Beta Carotene. Colostrum is low in fat so your baby can digest it easily, reducing instances of gas, constipation, and diarrhea. Colostrum coats baby’s gastro-intestinal tract with a protective barrier, safeguarding it against unwanted viruses and bacteria. Ingesting colostrum also hastens the excretion of meconium, baby’s first stool. This helps remove excess bilirubin and lowers your baby’s chances of developing jaundice.
After three to four days of nursing, colostrum is replaced by transitional milk, which is lighter in color and higher in fluids to protect the newborn infant from dehydration. A week to 10 days later, a woman’s mature milk comes in. Over the next thirty days, this mature milk continues to change as caloric, carbohydrate, and fat contents rise and protein levels taper off. At six months, protein levels dip again as solid foods are introduced into the baby’s diet.
Breast milk also undergoes changes within a single feed. During the first few minutes, the breasts produce foremilk, which is higher in fluid and satisfies baby’s immediate need for liquids and carbohydrates. Hind milk, which is thicker with fat, provides the calories needed for an infant’s optimal growth and brain development. Nursing as often as possible in the first few weeks establishes a consistent milk supply that adjusts as your baby grows.
Protects against Disease
At birth, a newborn’s immune system is not fully developed. Infant formula contains no immunological properties to help safeguard a baby from infection. Breast milk, on the other hand, is concentrated with white blood cells and antibodies that fight disease.
Colostrum is rich in Secretory Immunoglobulin A, an antibody that protects a baby’s mucus membranes (including the throat, lungs, and intestines) from viruses and bacteria. Compared to formula-fed infants, breastfed babies contract fewer middle ear, upper and lower respiratory infections, colds, pneumonia, meningitis, urinary tract infections, allergies, asthma, and eczema. Breastfed babies also tend to have less instances of diarrhea, which can quickly dehydrate a newborn and require hospitalization. The chances of developing lymphoma, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s Disease and Celiac Sprue (bowel disorders) are also lower for children who have been breastfed for the first year.
“The essence of what breastfeeding provides is immune protection,” says Dr. Alicia Dermer, MD, IBCLC, and clinical associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “A mother breathes in whatever bacteria or viruses are around and then makes antibodies specific to her environment, and that are especially tailored to her baby. That is how one mother’s milk might be different from another’s.
According to the National Women’s Health Information Center, breastfed babies also respond better to immunizations against polio, tetanus, diphtheria, and Haemophilus influenzae than formula-fed babies.
“The longer mom breastfeeds, the more benefits she and the baby get,” says Tammy Arberter, CD, IBCLC, and a lactation consultant at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. “The World Health Organization recommends that women breastfeed for the first year and then continue for as long as it is mutually desired by Mommy and Baby. If you do that, you are going to get maximum benefits.”
Health Benefits for Baby
Not only does breastfeeding ward off infection, it offers a host of other advantages to your developing child.
- Jaw and Teeth Development
Babies who nurse have to work harder than bottle-fed babies to draw liquid into their mouths. This strengthens their jaw muscles, helps shape their pallet, and promotes better tooth alignment.
- Improved Eyesight and Hand/Eye Coordination
Breastfeeding requires infants to use their hands and eyes to negotiate the distance between their mouth and mother’s nipple. This helps them develop aim and good hand/eye coordination, particularly if they are switched from one breast to another within a single feed. Breast milk also contains DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid that promotes healthy eye development.
- Fewer Cavities
Breastfeeding infants draw milk towards the back of their throat, away from their teeth. Formula from a bottle tends to pool in a baby’s mouth, exposing gums and teeth to more sugar. Special enzymes in breast milk (those are absent in formula) also reduce the build-up of decay by quickening the breakdown of milk sugars.
- Less Gas and Fussiness
Breast milk is lower in protein than formula, making it easier for baby to digest. Likewise, the lipids and fatty acids are easier on a baby’s stomach. This translates into less gas, constipation, and stomach upset that can be painful for a baby and cause sleep disruption (for you too!).
- May Reduce the Risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
Reports from the National Institute of Health indicate that breastfeeding may reduce a baby’s risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. There is still no definitive answer to why, but one theory suggests that the breast milk may protect infants from certain infections that can trigger SIDS.
- Breast Milk and Higher IQ A growing number of studies, including one published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1999), suggests a correlation between breastfeeding and higher scores on children’s IQ tests. The researchers re-evaluated previously published studies and found some promising results. Breastfed children scored approximately three points higher on IQ tests than formula-fed babies whose mothers had comparable levels of education and came from similar socio-economic backgrounds. The same study found that the brain-boosting power of breast milk is particularly beneficial to low birth weight or premature infants.
“Low birth-weight infants showed larger differences than did normal birth-weight babies, suggesting that premature infants derive more benefits in cognitive development from breast milk than do full-term infants,” states the study. “Finally, the cognitive developmental benefits of breastfeeding increased with duration.”
DHA, (docosahexaenoic acid), the same fatty acid that fosters good eyesight also plays a critical role in healthy brain development. DHA and other fats found in breast milk promote growth of myelin, a fatty substance that insulates nerve fibers. Myelin is crucial to the brain’s ability to effectively transmit information. Additionally, the cholesterol in breast milk provides building blocks for the manufacturing of important growth hormones and Vitamin D. Lactose, a natural milk sugar found in breast milk, but not formula, provides optimal fuel for brain tissue development.
Improves Women’s Health
In the last two decades, breastfeeding research has focused almost exclusively on the advantages to children. More recent studies have uncovered the life-saving health benefits for nursing mothers. Here are just a few.
- Heals the uterus:
Nine months of pregnancy stretches a woman’s uterus. Nursing stimulates the release of oxytocin from a mother’s pituitary gland. This causes the uterus to contract and shrink and reduces the risk of postpartum hemorrhaging.
- Postpones menstruation: Breastfeeding delays the reoccurrence of a woman’s menstrual cycles by several months (versus several weeks for women who bottle-feed). Fewer periods mean lowered risk of iron-deficiency anemia and decreased hormonal fluctuations. This is good news for sleep-deprived new mothers who might otherwise suffer from the low moods and exhaustion associated with PMS and their periods.
- Lowers risk of cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis: “Breastfeeding reduces the risk for three of the most serious diseases for women-female cancers, heart disease and osteoporosis,” writes Dr. Dermer in her published report A Well Kept Secret: Breastfeeding’s Benefits To Mothers (2001). “Ovarian and uterine cancers have been found to be more common in women who did not breastfeed. This may be due to the repeated ovulatory cycles and exposure to higher levels of estrogen from not breastfeeding.”
Less exposure to estrogen over their lifetimes might also account for why breastfeeding women report fewer cases of breast cancer. The results of a study published in the International Family Planning Perspectives (2002) indicate that a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer is reduced by four percent for every twelve months she breastfeeds, regardless of her reproductive history.
“A woman will derive the most protection from developing osteoporosis if her pregnancies are spaced at least two years apart,” adds Arberter. “And the more months that women breastfeed over their life-time, the greater their protection.”
Quicker Weight Loss
Breastfeeding comes as close to the claim, “Lose weight while you sleep!” as anyone can get. Maintaining a milk supply for your baby is a metabolic process that automatically burns an estimated two hundred to five hundred calories a day.
“I tell my patients that’s the equivalent of swimming thirty laps,” says Dr. Dermer.
This caloric expenditure is particularly important to new moms with diabetes. Breastfeeding women tend to have lower blood sugar levels than those who bottle-feed and need less insulin. Breastfeeding may keep women with gestational diabetes from developing Type 2 diabetes and reduce a Type 1 diabetic’s need for insulin. Elevated levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol) in breastfeeding women are an added bonus for diabetics as well as the millions of American women at risk for developing heart disease.
Reduces Obesity in Children and Teens
The super-sizing of America’s children begins long before their first Happy Meal. A recent study at Harvard Medical School shows that infant eating patterns can have a tremendous effect on a child’s chances of becoming obese later in life.
After statistically adjusting the percentages for a host of socio-economic and lifestyle factors, the researchers found that “infants who were breastfed more than formula-fed or who were breastfed for longer periods had an approximately 20 percent lower risk of being overweight in the pre-teen and teen years.”
Why? Because infants who breastfeed rely on their own hunger signals to modulate what they consume. Bottle-fed babies, on the other hand, have less control over how much they eat. Parents frequently over-feed their infants in an attempt to “not waste food” or “finish a bottle.” Over time this can cause children to lose touch with their innate hunger cues and develop a pattern of overeating.
Promotes Mother/Infant Bonding and Emotional Well-Being
Try as you might, it is nearly impossible to send an e-mail, check an answering machine, or feed the dog while nursing. Breastfeeding is nature’s way of getting us to slow down and focus on our babies. And while bottle-feeding mothers also form powerful bonds with their infants, breastfeeding moms experience hormonal changes that can intensify feelings of closeness and well being.
“Oxytocin and prolactin help mothers relax in different ways,” notes Dr. Dermer. “Oxytocin tends to lower blood pressure and blunt the mother’s response to stress while prolactin has a more calming, sedative effect.”
Breastfeeding also offers working moms the chance to sit back, kick up their feet, and reconnect with their babies after a long day away.
Breastfeeding is equally relaxing to Baby. Turned length-wise against Mom’s belly, breastfeeding babies experience maximum skin-to-skin contact, which has been proven to promote bonding. They can also feel the warmth of Mom’s skin, take in her scent and hear her heart beating. This multi-sensory experience resembles what baby enjoyed in utero and can comfort newborns as they adjust to life outside the womb.
More Convenient/Less Expensive
Breastfeeding is immediate and highly portable. There is nothing to buy, mix, measure, stir, wash, rinse, or double-check for temperature. This can save new mothers a lot of time, particularly if they have multiples who eat at different times of the day.
And then there is the cost difference. Breast milk, in any supply, is free. Ready-made formulas can cost families $800 to $1800 per child, annually. Nipples, bottles, bottle brushes and bottle bag inserts are extra. And because breastfed babies are ill less often, their parents miss fewer days at work and spend less on prescriptions, doctor’s visits, and hospital stays.
Expands Your Social Circle
Breastfeeding support groups are a wonderful way to make new friends. It is estimated that 70 percent of new mothers are now breastfeeding. They may be of a different race, age religion, socio-economic level, or sexual orientation. But each and every one of them is experiencing similar breastfeeding joys and challenges. If you are not yet a mother, it is hard to imagine that the contents of your child’s diapers will become a critical topic of discussion, but it will. Who else but another breastfeeding mom can give you advice on sore nipples or truly understand the pride you feel at mastering the football hold?
“Some of the women that I met in the local nursing mothers group, I am best friends with,” says Arberter. “Our kids have grown up together. These are not people that I would have ordinarily reached out to. But we had a very common bond.”
Encourages Infant/Father Bonding
Fathers who take an active, supportive role in breastfeeding forge a special relationship with their babies. And it is easy. Simply sitting beside their wives while they breastfeed gives dads the chance to talk and caress their infants. Soon, a baby begins to recognize her dad’s voice, his touch, and even his smell. Immediately after a feed, Dad can place Baby on his bare chest and experience the bonding that comes with direct skin-to-skin contact.
Fathers are also crucial to a breastfeeding mother’s success. This is especially true in the first few weeks. Yes, breastfeeding is natural, but that does not mean it is always easy. Dads can do a number of things to help, including keeping mom company while she breastfeeds, making sure she is properly fed and hydrated, helping her properly position Baby on the breast, and shielding her from unwanted comments and advice from family and friends. Best of all, breastfeeding gives parents a chance to work collaboratively and to lay a loving foundation for their new family.