Until the early part of this century, mothers didn’t give a thought as to how to feed their babies. All babies were breastfed, if not by the mother herself, then by a wet nurse: a lactating woman who breastfed the child for the mother. Then along came formula, which provided a viable feeding alternative for women and babies physically incapable of breastfeeding and for infants without a mother. Yet the availability of formula has created a complex dilemma for women all over the world.
Experts today are unanimous in their support of breastfeeding as the hands-down best way to feed a human infant. In 1998, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a landmark statement that babies should be fed breastmilk exclusively until the age of six months and continue to breastfeed, after the introduction of solid foods, until age one and beyond. Breastfeeding should begin within the first hour of birth.
The World Health Organization has proclaimed that breastfeeding a baby until age two is ideal.
The advantages of breastfeeding are so numerous that it is difficult to name them all—and researchers continually uncover more information. Here are just a few of the highlights of breastfeeding’s benefits to your baby:
- Breastmilk is the perfect nutrient for human babies, and it is species-specific. For example, while cow’s milk contains far more iron than human milk, the iron is not in a form that is easily absorbed by humans. What’s more, the nutritional makeup of breastmilk changes to match the different stages of your baby’s development.
- Breastmilk protects infants against a wide range of diseases, including respiratory infections, bacterial meningitis, diarrhea, pneumonia, botulism, and middle ear and urinary tract infections. Some studies also suggest breastmilk may protect against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), allergies, insulin-dependent diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lymphoma, and several digestive diseases.
- Children who are breastfed are ill much less often than those who are not. The cost to the nation as a result of this may be as much as two to four billion dollars annually.
- Children are never allergic to their mother’s milk. By contrast, some babies do develop allergies to cow’s milk, soy milk, or other ingredients contained in infant formula.
- Breastmilk may protect your baby’s future health in ways you might not realize. For example, though researchers aren’t sure why, an adult requiring a kidney transplant has a much better chance of a good result if he was breastfed as a child. The result will be even better if the substitute organ is from a sibling who was also breastfed, rather than one who was formula-fed.
- Unlike formula, breastmilk is not subject to the risk of contamination. Formula, like any other canned product, carries a potential for salmonella, glass particles, insect parts, and a number of other possible contaminants.
- And, most importantly of all, nursing strengthens the bond between mother and child. Something special passes between an infant and her mother while they are breastfeeding together. Nursing makes infants feel safe and secure the way nothing else can,
There are also numerous benefits to you, the mother, for breastfeeding. They include:
- A rise in oxytocin levels, which helps reduce postpartum bleeding and postpartum depression that sometimes accompany new motherhood.
- Continuous breastfeeding is a natural birth control. If you breastfeed exclusively, your chances of getting pregnant are less than one percent during the first six months (as long as your period has not resumed).
- Studies show that breastfeeding exclusively for one year or more may protect against ovarian and breast cancer. Other studies suggest it may reduce the number of urinary tract infections and protect against osteoporosis. Pregnancy depletes your bones of some of their mineral content. Breastfeeding women get those mineral levels back more quickly than women who feed their babies with formula.
- Breastfeeding is much less expensive than formula feeding. In fact, it’s free!
- Breastfeeding can help you get back to your prepregnancy weight more quickly.
- Breastmilk is the perfect convenience food. You don’t need to own a full stash of bottles, nipples, cans of formula, bottlebrushes, or sterilizers. You don’t need to warm it up to the right temperature or mix it with water. When you leave the house, you don’t need to pack a thing.
- Last, but not least, formula production is harmful to the environment. In their book Milk, Money and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding, Naomi Baumslag and Dia Michels illustrate that commercial milk production is a very uneconomical use of land. They note, “It would take 135 million lactating cows to substitute for the breastmilk of the women of India. This number of cows would require 43 percent of the surface area of India for pasture.”
Cans need to be manufactured to contain the formula, paper produced to make labels, energy consumed to process the milk and transport the finished product to stores. All of the by-products of formula consumption then take up space in landfills. To learn more about breastfeeding and the environment, read Eco-Mama: Why Breastfeeding is Best for Babies ... and the Environment.
Blending Work and Breastfeeding
One of the biggest challenges to breastfeeding success is the return to work. Women who will be going back to work in six weeks or three months might hesitate to begin breastfeeding. In fact, experts say that breastfeeding for even a short time is better than not breastfeeding at all. In addition, it may not be necessary to stop when you return to work. Here are a few things to think about now, before your baby arrives:
- Look at the options in breast pumps, and consider purchasing one, borrowing from a friend, or renting one. With practice and preparation, it is possible to pump enough milk to feed the baby while you are gone. Keep in mind that, when it comes to pumps, good quality can make a big difference.
- Find a space at work where you could pump your breasts a couple of times each day, if needed. Comfort and privacy matter, so try to avoid using a bathroom. Once you’ve found a location, talk this over with your supervisor. Discuss when pumping might be allowed. Do you already have scheduled break times? Can you use some of your lunch break at other times of the day?
- Consider changing your hours. Is it possible to work part time for a while? Or could you work out of your home some or all of the time? Some women have had luck with job sharing, a situation in which two persons perform one job, each on a part-time basis. Perhaps you could compress your hours by reducing or skipping your lunch hour. Conversely, maybe you could lengthen your lunch hour and nurse the baby during it, then stay a bit later to make up for the extra time. Is it possible to bring your baby to work with you some or all of the time?
- Begin to think about your childcare options in terms of nursing. Is it possible for the baby to be close by, if you are going to use a daycare? If you have a sitter, can she bring the baby to you at work once or twice a day to nurse? Or are you close enough to go home for lunch?
- To convince your supervisor of the importance of nursing-friendly working conditions, explain that women who nurse tend to return to work sooner, that women who continue to breastfeed after returning to work miss less time because of baby-related illnesses, and that when breastfed babies do get ill, it tends to be of shorter duration.
The Importance of Mother-to-Mother Support
In the past, mothers had the support of plenty of other women who already knew how to breastfeed. Women tended to live near, or even with, their mothers, aunts, and mothers-in-law. Not only do very few modern mothers have that proximity to their elders, they probably couldn’t teach us anyway—when our mothers were having babies, very few women breastfed.
Breastfeeding is natural, yes, but learning how to do it doesn’t just happen. It takes practice and the first few days can be challenging. It is possible to get mother-to-mother support even if you don’t live near family members with breastfeeding experience. Perhaps you can form a mother’s group once the baby is born. Joining a breastfeeding support group is very helpful. You can find these groups through your midwife, pediatrician, or childbirth educator.
The best-known breastfeeding support group is La Leche League, a nonprofit, nonsectarian group formed in 1956. There are chapters in every state, and all over the world. La Leche League supports nursing moms in all types of situations: working, stay-at-home, single, and lesbian. If you attend a La Leche meeting, you will meet dozens of women who are nursing their babies; you can receive both group and one-on-one support from other mothers who can answer your questions.
These meetings can be a wonderful way to strengthen your community ties, potentially creating permanent friendships. The meetings are designed for you to attend before your baby arrives, as well as after he is born.
Finding a Breastfeeding-Friendly Birth Setting
Research has shown that information and support are essential to successful breastfeeding. While it is likely that midwives at home and in birth centers will recommend and support breastfeeding, if you are giving birth at a hospital, look for one that is breastfeeding friendly.
Check out our special community article: 153 Pieces of Breastfeeding Advice from Real Moms