By: Sarah Wang
A mother’s breast milk is the optimal first food to give babies the best possible start to good health. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months, followed by continued breastfeeding for one year or longer, as mutually desired by the infant and mother. In the United States, about 4 in 5 new mothers initiate breastfeeding, and about half of moms breastfeed their babies for at least 6 months. Breastfeeding as a practice is still far from the norm in our culture despite recognition that breast is best.
Babies who are breastfed have better health, educational, and emotional outcomes over the course of their lives. Breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight off viruses and bacteria. A baby’s risk of having allergies or asthma, as well as ear infections, and respiratory illnesses is also lowered. In addition, breast milk contains fatty acids, like DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), that may help a baby’s brain and eyes develop. As babies grow, the content of breast milk adapts so that babies get exactly what their bodies need to develop. For example, in the first few days after child birth, colostrum is produced, which is a thick, yellowish form of breast milk that provides all of the nutrients that a baby needs in the first few days of life. After 3-4 days, its qualities change to support growing baby’s needs. Breastfeeding’s protection against illnesses lasts beyond a baby’s breastfeeding stage. Children who were breastfed have a lower risk of childhood obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers than children who were formula fed.
Breastfeeding provides unique non-nutritional benefits to both mother and child, such as increased bonding time. Many women report feeling relaxed while breastfeeding, especially once mother and baby get the hang of it. Nursing triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin in mothers, which is shown to promote relaxation and nurturing. Right after childbirth, oxytocin can also help the uterus to contract, helping to stop postpartum bleeding. There are also other undeniable benefits of breastfeeding for maternal health, including a lower risk of uterine cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Breastfeeding burns extra calories, helping moms get back to their pre-pregnancy weight.
Breastfeeding is natural – but it does not mean that it is easy. It is important that women and their partners are informed of the benefits of breastfeeding during pregnancy, so that they can make an informed choice on how they will feed their baby. Many mothers set out to breastfeed, but face challenges along the way that may influence their ability to meet their goals. Mothers have to navigate a complex health care system in order to get support during a vulnerable time when they are often exhausted. Vulnerable populations, including low-income or minority women, are particularly affected by these barriers. To support the health of mothers and infants, achieving equity in access to breastfeeding support should be a national priority. While breastfeeding has been traditionally thought of as an individual’s decision, it is vital to recognize society’s role in its support and protection. Family and friends, health care professionals, hospitals, community organizations, and state and federal policies all play a crucial role in supporting mothers. Through support at multiple levels, mothers are more likely to meet their personal goals for breastfeeding. Working together to raise awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding to families and society, we can create a culture of breastfeeding where the practice is normalized.
Sarah Wang is a Project Coordinator at the Community Clinic Consortium, which is a partner of Solano Coalition for Better Health.