Whether you have children or not, you have probably read or heard that breastfeeding is the best choice a mom can make for her newborn. Now you’re pregnant and suddenly that decision has become very personal.
You know experts strongly encourage breastfeeding. But you may still have some reservations about whether the commitment it takes truly is worth it. So let’s look at the evidence.
Here it is in a nutshell:
- Your breastfed baby will be healthier as an infant and reap benefits even into adulthood.
- You will recuperate faster from childbirth and experience health, emotional and financial benefits because you made the choice to breastfeed.
- Society benefits as a whole.
The perfect baby food
Breast milk is the perfect food for an infant. So perfect that it changes as your baby’s needs change.
During pregnancy and immediately following birth, you will produce colostrum, a thick, sticky, yellowish fluid sometimes referred to as “liquid gold.” Your baby only needs a few teaspoons of this liquid gold to get the rich nutrients and antibodies that protect baby from infections.
As your milk flow increases, it becomes thicker and fattier while still providing the nutrients, antibodies and extra calories necessary for growth. Because breast milk is so perfect, it is more easily digested than formula.
A healthier baby
Extensive research has demonstrated numerous ways breast milk offers baby a wealth of health benefits that can last into adulthood:
- Breastfed babies have stronger immune systems, which can protect them from many different illnesses. Studies have proven breastfed babies are at lower risk of conditions such as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), type 2 diabetes and childhood leukemia. In fact, your baby’s immune system remains stronger even after you wean him/her from breastfeeding.
- If you have a family history of asthma or respiratory ailments, breastfeeding may offer protection. Studies have shown that breastfeeding protected against asthma even when the mother had asthma and even if breastfeeding lasted only a few weeks.
- Breastfed babies have lower rates of respiratory and ear infections. Allergic conditions, such as seasonal allergies and eczema, are also less likely.
- They have fewer infections in the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts. They are less likely to have problems with diarrhea and vomiting.
- Breastfeeding helps your child develop stronger bones. Compared to children who were never breastfed or who were breastfed less than three months, children breastfed longer than three months had stronger bones in the neck and spine areas.
- If that isn’t enough to convince you the benefits are worthwhile, would it help to know that your breastfed baby is likely to be smarter too? Yes, there are even studies that followed breastfed babies and bottle-fed babies into adulthood to assess intellectual growth.
- Child and adult obesity is on the rise in America. You are giving your baby hormonal protection that can help prevent obesity later. The protein hormone, leptin, is abundant in breast milk. Leptin impacts a baby’s growth and affects food satisfaction and self-regulation.
- Other studies have shown breastfed babies have lower insulin levels, another factor related to obesity. While high cholesterol in adults is not a good thing, the high cholesterol content in breast milk is a good thing. It affects a newborn’s metabolism by reducing chances of high cholesterol and dietary fat problems later in life.
- And what mother doesn’t want to reduce her child’s pain or stress? The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages breastfeeding during a painful procedure for baby because it provides pain relief for the baby. Also, even when under stress or in pain, breastfed babies have lower heart rates. This stress prevention early in life can positively affect brain chemicals. That, in turn, affect how an individual handles stress later in life.
- Studies have shown that suckling at the breast is good for a baby’s tooth and jaw development. Babies at the breast have to use as much as 60 times more energy to get food than do those drinking from a bottle. As a baby’s jaw muscles are strenuously exercised in suckling, their constant pulling encourages the growth of well-formed jaws and straight, healthy teeth.
A healthier mom
It’s pretty clear breastfeeding is best for your baby. But what about you? Yes, you benefit too.
- You will recuperate and heal faster following childbirth because breastfeeding helps your body recover more quickly. Hormones released when you breastfeed help your uterus contract back to its prepregnancy size faster. Some research even indicates that these hormones help protect you from postpartum depression too.
- Breastfeeding for even a few months can reduce your likelihood of developing health problems such as type 2 diabetes, certain types of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
- You may find it easier to get back to your prepregnancy weight. Moms who breastfeed burn up to 650 calories a day. Breastfeeding moms are also calmer and less emotional due to the release of oxytocin. This hormone has a calming effect for moms, as it helps the breast milk flow.
- Breastfeeding is a natural contraceptive if you are exclusively breastfeeding, and have not yet gotten your period back following childbirth. Night nursing encourages longer amenorrhoea (periodlessness). If you really don’t want to get pregnant again, use some back up birth control even if you haven’t gotten your period again. You will have no way of knowing when your first ovulation will occur. Still, generally speaking, breastfeeding contributes to optimum child spacing.
- You save time and money. Purchasing formulas and feeding supplies is more expensive and longer lasting than the costs associated with breastfeeding. While breastfeeding does take more effort initially, you have no bottles and nipples to sterilize every day. No formula shopping, mixing and measuring. No preparation time getting a bottle ready for every feeding, especially those late night feedings.
A healthier nation
Because breastfed infants usually have fewer sicknesses, hospitalizations and medications, breastfeeding saves lives and money. According to research, nearly 1,000 infant deaths in the United States could be prevented if 90 percent of moms breastfed exclusively for six months.
An estimated $2.2 billion in medical costs would be saved each year if women exclusively breastfed their babies. One study showed total medical care expenditures of approximately 20 percent less for infants exclusively breastfed compared to infants who were never breastfed.
And because breastfed infants are not sick as often, employers would see lower costs on health insurance plans and lost work days for parents.
Garbage and waste would decline. With no formula cans and other bottle-feeding supplies, plastic waste and trash would decrease substantially.
And, if there were some type of emergency where electric power and other utilities were suspended, you would be better equipped to meet your baby’s needs during this emergency? Why? Your baby is protected from risks of unclean water supplies or the possible lack of formula and feeding supplies. Your milk, which is always the right temperature, is immediately available. No temperature control is necessary.
So if breastfeeding is such a win-win equation, why isn’t every woman choosing to breastfeed? It took several years and lots of research to realize the significant benefits associated with breastfeeding. With education and improved support systems, women are again choosing to breastfeed.
Many women simply didn’t – and still don’t – realize all the benefits. They may also be working mothers who don’t see how they can combine breastfeeding with a job outside the home. In fact, the decline in breastfeeding nationwide began about the same time American women began entering the workforce in large numbers. Many workplaces discouraged moms from trying to work and breastfeed.
A national campaign by the Department of Health and Human Services began promoting benefits of breastfeeding. Many health organizations, as well as workplaces, got on board.
Many of today’s new moms have mothers who didn’t breastfeed or who tried unsuccessfully to combine work and breastfeeding. Those word-of-mouth experiences can be discouraging. However, today’s young women will find a tremendous amount of professional breastfeeding support that wasn’t available when their mothers were having babies.
For many women, breastfeeding comes naturally and works easily. But some struggle, especially in the first few weeks as both mom and baby are adjusting. Plus, mom is still tired, emotional and recuperating.
Today’s specialists include lactation consultants, who generally have a nursing background with advanced education in breastfeeding. These specialists are very helpful for women who have never breastfed or who had problems breastfeeding previously.
If you have a chronic health problem, have had breast surgery, or are breastfeeding a special-needs infant or more than one child, seek out a lactation consultant. Even if you are having what may seem like a basic problem such as trouble getting your baby to latch, the expertise of a lactation consultant can quickly get you and baby on track. In some regions, lactation consultants will come to your home.
You may have heard women who say they didn’t have enough milk or can’t breastfeed due to some health problem. Rarely is a woman unable to breastfeed. There are some situations where it isn’t advisable, such as Moms who have HIV.
Prepare to breastfeed before your baby is born. There are breastfeeding classes you can take, online discussion groups and other educational resources. Purchase your breast-feeding supplies prior to baby’s birth. This includes items such as breast pads, nipple cream, nursing bras and possibly breast bumps.
Tell your primary care provider early in your pregnancy if you plan to breastfeed. Your provider is a good source for education and support.
Seek out people who will support your efforts. Hospitals generally have staff trained in breastfeeding that can assist you before you go home with your baby. Breastfeeding support groups meet in many communities and are available online. Family members and friends who have breastfed are good support too.
Begin breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth, preferably within the first hour. Ideally, you should breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and continue breastfeeding until your baby’s first birthday. (Breastfeeding exclusively means using breast milk as the sole nutrition – no water, supplemental formulas or other liquids.) After six months, solid foods can be added. You may want to continue breastfeeding after a year and that’s perfectly fine.
If a year seems overwhelming to you, keep in mind that babies benefit from breastfeeding even for short periods. Commit to trying for two weeks first. Then reset your goal to two months. Even two months will give your baby an enormous advantage.
Breastfeeding is a learned skill. You can learn to breastfeed successfully. When you do, you will treasure those moments you spend each day with your baby.
Get the people you love and who love you to support your decision to breastfeed. Knowing how important breastfeeding is for you and your baby and relying on others who love you and your baby helps you overcome challenges you may encounter. Learn about additional breastfeeding support systems.
Under the Affordable Care Act, most health insurance plans must provide coverage for breastfeeding equipment and counseling for pregnant and new moms. Talk to your insurer to find out what your plan covers.