Go beyond the basics of breastfeeding. We've compiled a list of 10 facts you may not have known about the practice of breastfeeding, and the info needs to be out there!
Thankfully, breastfeeding is increasingly promoted these days. More and more evidence shows the importance of feeding babies this complete, species-specific food. We know that breast milk is full of living vitamins and minerals, but here are some things you *might* not know about breastfeeding.
1. Breastfeeding can be hard. No, not always! Some women have an easy time with it, and that's always such a gift. But breastfeeding is something of a lost art in our society, and because of this, it might be a challenge at first. Many of us no longer grow up witnessing breastfeeding, which has historically been a natural learning tool. Breastfeeding can come with quite a learning curve for both mom and baby. When I had my first baby, I was surprised by how unhelpful newborns are with the whole experience. It's something like trying to handle a floppy octopus, until you really get the hang of it. And, I never forget what my amazing lactation consultant told me: "Breastfeeding is the most unnatural natural thing in the world." If we're really honest, it's true. And, we need to be really honest about that so mamas who struggle don't feel so much despair that they want to give up. With that in mind...
2. You should spend your pregnancy preparing to breastfeed. Most moms plan to breastfeed, but few of us prepare accordingly. Due to its nature as a lost art, being armed with knowledge about the importance of breastfeeding, as well as how to do it and troubleshoot if necessary, has become essential. The number of times I've seen, read, and heard of a new mom's breastfeeding relationship getting derailed due to various, often preventable "booby traps" is innumerable. It almost happened to me. When my first baby was born, I didn't know how to get him latched on; I figured it would come naturally. For the next few days, the experience was so painful, I almost gave up. The only reason I persevered was because of what I had learned during pregnancy about the importance of breastfeeding, and I am eternally grateful that I made it through the rough patch. I have written a step-by-step guide to avoiding these common booby traps, to help parents prepare as I wish I would have.
3. Breastfeeding affects the human microbiome. What is the human microbiome? The microbiome is the collection of bacteria, fungi, and archaea that humans carry around. While this might not sound particularly healthy, the human microbiome happens to be essential to overall physical and mental health. If the words "gut health" and "probiotics" sound familiar to you, you've likely heard at least a little about the incredible importance of healthy bacteria. The microbiome is its own ecosystem and keeping it in balance affects everything from obesity to anxiety and depression. Increasing evidence is showing the crucial importance of keeping this bacteria in balance, and breastfeeding promotes this right from the start. Breast milk is full of healthy bacteria, which helps protect the delicate gut flora of your baby.
4. Breast milk is made differently for boys vs. girls. Some interesting news in the ever-growing pool of knowledge about breast milk: it may have a different composition based on the sex of the child. Researchers have found that humans and other mammals produce milk that changes composition depending on the level of income and safety within the family, and this influences which sex is favored with higher fat content milk. Our bodies are wiser than we can fathom.
5. Kissing your baby changes your breast milk. Did you know that the undeniable urge to cover your baby in kisses serves a biological purpose? When a mother kisses her baby, she samples the pathogens on baby's face, which then travel to mom's lymphatic system. Mom's body then creates antibodies to fight those pathogens, which baby receives through breast milk. What?! Amazing, right? When my son and I both got H1N1 (he was 8-months-old), our physicians called us the poster people for breastfeeding. I was running near 105* temperatures and pretty much miserable; still I nursed. My little guy, on the other hand, had some explosive poops and a bit of a runny nose, but otherwise? Unscathed. They couldn't believe how happy and jolly he was, but told me that it was a testament to the power of breastmilk and my antibodies protecting him.
6. Men can lactate! Yes, it's true. Men have the appropriate breast tissue to lactate, but since they do not experience the hormonal changes that come with pregnancy and help produce breast milk, a man would have to spend a great deal of time pumping and using galactagogues in order to make sufficient breast milk. But it has been done.
7. Breastfeeding helps prevent postpartum hemorrhaging. Research has shown that skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding after birth has such an effect on postpartum bleeding that women who did not have skin-to-skin breastfeeding immediately postpartum were almost twice as likely to experience postpartum hemorrhaging.
8. Your breast milk changes during each feed. Children often approach the breast in a furor of thirst, and your breast milk is prepared for that. When your milk begins to let down, you first produce foremilk, which is watery and has more ability to hydrate your baby. After your baby has nursed for a bit and has their thirst quenched, your milk then changes to hindmilk, which is thicker and has higher fat content, meeting baby's energy needs. And, your breastmilk changes as your baby grows and develops. Take a look at your stash in the freezer. The milk you make today does not look like or act like the milk you made in those early days of nursing. And, it won't look that way in a few months, either, because again, our babies tell us what they need from our milk and we adjust as needed via Mother Nature.
9. Breast milk has the power to neutralize HIV. In 2012, researchers at Duke University Medical Center isolated antibodies from B cells in breast milk, which "can generate neutralizing antibodies that may inhibit the virus that causes AIDS." The findings were discovered in an effort to learn why only 1 in 1o HIV positive mothers transmits HIV to her baby via breast milk, when breastfeeding provides so much exposure.
10. Breastfeeding for at least 6 months can save millions of lives. UNICEF estimates that if more mothers breastfed exclusively for at least 6 months (preferably followed by at least 2 years of breastfeeding with complementary foods), over a million lives could be saved every year. Currently, only 39% of babies worldwide are breastfed exclusively for at least 6 months, which is why efforts to normalize breastfeeding and support lactation education is essential.
As always, our goal is never to shame mothers who cannot nurse for whatever reason. We know that the ability to nurse one's child is not always a given, and we never want to shame or judge mothers. That said, just as the formula industry has had some not-so-great influence on the way mothers and society in general look at nursing, we feel remiss if we don't share the truth about breastfeeding benefits. Our intent is always to encourage and empower mothers.
Photo: Natalia Deriabina/Shutterstock