by Amy Spangler
November 18, 2010
Many women start out breastfeeding, but give up sooner than they had planned, even though breastfeeding is medically, nutritionally, and emotionally the absolute best thing you can do for your baby. Human milk has everything a baby’s body needs and provides more than just a perfect blend of calories, nutrients, and antibodies. But the advantages don’t stop there.
Breastfeeding is convenient—no mixing, measuring, or clean up. Breasts and babies are portable, making travel simple. With a bit of practice, mothers can breastfeed any time, any place. Breast milk is the ultimate fast food—always available and at just the right temperature. Breastfeeding saves money—an average of $1,000 the first year in infant formula costs alone. Breastfeeding is fuel-efficient; the only energy needed for milk production is the small number of calories a mom eats each day. Breastfeeding is eco-friendly; breasts are designed to handle any serving size, so there is no need for glass or plastic containers. And study after study proves breastfed babies have less risk for acute and chronic diseases.
Often overlooked is the evidence showing that breastfeeding is good for mothers, too:
The emotional benefits of breastfeeding are equally important but more difficult to measure. Something happens when a mother cradles her baby in her arms and puts her baby to her breast. That ‘something’ may be impossible to measure, but it resonates from a mother’s caress, the soothing sound of her voice, her baby’s rhythmic suckling, and the aura of calmness that surrounds both mother and baby. The closeness that breastfeeding requires makes it easier for breastfeeding mothers to develop a strong emotional bond with their babies. Add-in the release of oxytocin while breastfeeding (the hormone linked to maternal behavior), and it’s easy to see why breastfeeding is touted for its emotional benefits as well as its health benefits.
Breastfeeding benefits for baby
Even though mothers who breastfeed are healthier, it’s their babies who benefit most from any amount of breastfeeding which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend that babies be breastfed exclusively for six months and that breastfeeding continue for at least 1–2 years and beyond.
Breastfeeding provides more than just food. Babies are born immature and unable to fight infection, so they rely on ingredients in human milk to give them the protection they need until their immune system matures. One drop of human milk contains more than one million white blood cells—germ eaters called macrophages. Human milk gets its immune boosting properties from antibodies—special proteins that coat the lining of the intestinal tract and keep germs from getting through. The presence of antibodies explains why human milk is referred to as a baby’s first immunization. Antibodies are made to order. When babies are exposed to germs in the environment, moms produce antibodies specific to those germs. These antibodies are passed through the mother’s milk to her baby. Usually when a mother gets sick, her baby has already been exposed to the germs that cause the infection. Protective antibodies are passed from a mother to her baby via breast milk. So the best protection a mother can give her baby is to continue breastfeeding. In addition to white blood cells and antibodies, human milk contains over 100 oligosaccharides—non-digestible sugars that attach to germs in the baby’s intestinal tract and keep them from causing infection.
There is nothing a mother can do for her baby that offers as many positive and healthy attributes as breastfeeding:
Why don’t more mothers breastfeed?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2010 Breastfeeding Report Card, 75 percent of mothers in the U.S. initiate breastfeeding. However, few breastfeed exclusively for six months and even fewer breastfeed for a full year. A number of barriers contribute to these low rates: hospital policies and practices that interfere with breastfeeding; poorly trained health care providers; lack of encouragement and support at home and in the community; worksites that fail to accommodate breastfeeding mothers; and a culture that continues to view bottle-feeding and breastfeeding as comparable feeding options.
Most U.S. families have access to clean water, refrigeration, and human milk substitutes, so there is a perception that it doesn’t matter how U.S. babies are fed (breast or bottle). But a 2010 study found that even in a developed country like the U.S., breastfeeding saves lives and dollars. Based on 2010 breastfeeding rates, the authors found that 911 lives and $13 billion would be saved each year if 9 out of 10 U.S. mothers breastfed exclusively for six months—a sizeable return for such a small investment of time.
Breastfeeding has long been touted as the “best” way to feed a baby, but the fact is, it’s the “normal” way to feed a baby. It’s a process that has evolved over 200 million mammalian years; one that is almost too good to be true; one that every baby and mother deserves.
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