Despite being a natural progression of life, there still appears to be an enormous lack of awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding today. Often with the combined negativity towards breastfeeding and lack of support, it is common for first time mothers to be dissuaded from persisting with this beneficial practice.
Unfortunately, breastfeeding is not necessarily as instinctive as one would expect it to be. However, the common fallacy that seems to persist that a mother might not have sufficient milk supply is unfounded. Although possibly, it is a very rare occurrence. For such a condition to be a rampant problem would have been evolutionary suicide back in the days where baby formulas did not exist. In most cases, it is usually a lack of support and understanding that prevents a mother from breastfeeding.
Breast milk is produced on demand and the best way to increase milk production is to allow the baby to suckle directly from the breast. It is the baby’s suckling action that encourages further milk production. No suckling, no milk. Often, because of the “apparent” lack of milk in the early days of nursing, well-intentioned relatives encourage the new mother to supplement the feeds with formula – just until the milk comes.
Although well-intended, this flawed recommendation often sabotages the new mother’s milk supply because it reduces the frequency with which the baby takes the breast. Since breast milk is produced on demand, the reduced suckling means less milk is produced. This then lends itself to the fallacy that the new mother “doesn’t have milk”.
In the first two days after delivery, the breast does not produce milk. It produces a substance called colostrum. Colostrum is rich in all the necessary nutrients required by a newborn and is very easy to digest. It offers protective antibodies for the newborn and also helps prevent jaundice.
A common concern among parents during this early stage is that the baby may not have enough to eat. However, we should be mindful that the size of a newborn’s stomach is about the size of a grape. It is important for the baby to have frequent feeds during the early days as it sets the stage for normal milk production. Generally, the more often you feed, the better your milk production. By about the third to fifth day (there is a variation among mothers), colostrum will be replaced with regular breast milk.
To encourage breast feeding, it is advisable not to offer the baby any artificial pacifiers for the first six weeks (there is some variation to the timing between sources), therefore, no bottle feeding of any sort. At this time, the baby is also learning how to breast feed. The introduction of pacifiers can cause confusion because the suckling action is different from that of the breast.
There are additional issues with the introduction of a bottle too early. Babies are intelligent and they soon discover that it is far easier to retrieve milk from a bottle than it is to suckle from a breast. This is the fastest way to destroy a mother’s milk supply. Although there are cases where babies happily interchange between bottles and the breast, this is not always the case, especially when the baby is very young. Where bottles are concerned, it is best to proceed cautiously, especially if continue to breastfeed is what you desire.
A baby that is exclusively breastfeeding has no need for water, because breast milk provides all the necessary fluids. The initial part of the feed is called the foremilk which is good for quenching thirst. If the baby is hungry, it will stay on the breast for longer to get the hind milk which is fatty and more filling. On the other hand, a baby that is consuming formula requires water to prevent constipation.
Most of the information on breastfeeding encourages mothers to breastfeed exclusively for at least the first six months – that means that the baby takes no other forms of nutrition except for breast milk. Beyond six months, solids may be introduced, but it is still advisable to continue breastfeeding as there is a lot of evidence pointing to continued benefits for babies who breastfeed up to one or two years of age and beyond.
Here is a summary of the benefits of breastfeeding:
It’s nutritional – with the right constituents for human development
The babies have fewer illnesses because of the mother’s antibodies being passed through the milk
Breast fed babies are less likely to develop allergies later in life
Breast fed babies have less risk of developing obesity later in life
More research is demonstrating that breast fed babies have more optimal brain development
Breast feeding lowers the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)
Breast milk contains lots of good bacteria
Breast milk straight from the breast is sterile
Breast milk contains at least a hundred additional ingredients that formula does not
No baby is allergic to their mother’s milk (although they may be allergic to some of the foods she eats, but this is easily rectified if the mother eliminates that food)
The suckling action allows the baby to develop strong jaw muscles that encourage the growth of straight and healthy teeth
Breast fed babies are also less likely to develop tooth decay compared to bottle fed babies
Babies who are premature or born with medical problems have also been shown to benefit from breast feeding
Babies who are breast fed have a stronger bond with their mothers. Some studies have shown that breast fed babies grow up to be socially more independent than their formula fed counterparts
Babies who are breast fed tend are generally held more closely than bottle fed babies. The skin to skin contact between mother and baby provides comfort for the baby that has just been removed from the protective environment of the womb.
Although breastfeeding is not without it own difficulties (mostly in the initial stages as it gets easier with time), I would think that given the overwhelming benefits, it’s worth any inconvenience.
Additionally, we should not neglect the fact that breastfeeding is also beneficial to the mother – even more reasons to breastfeed:
The suckling action of the baby indirectly results in the contraction of the uterus, protecting the mother from post-partum bleeding
Exclusive breast feeding is 99% effective in preventing a second pregnancy the first six months post delivery
Decreases the risk of developing iron-deficient anemia
More rapid and sustained weight loss (milk production uses 200-500 calories a day)
Decrease the risk of developing breast, ovarian and uterine cancers
Current literature suggest that breast feeding may help protect against osteoporosis
It is also found that breastfeeding helps strengthen the maternal instinct. From the scientific perspective, the psychosocial benefits are a little more difficult to analyse, however one particular study found that mothers with a history of abandonment are less likely to abandon their babies if they breastfeed the baby.
The recommended duration for breastfeeding
Currently, the general recommendation is to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, and to continue breastfeeding with other sources of nutrition up to 1 year. However, more and more research shows that it may be worthwhile to extend breastfeeding beyond the first year and that the benefits of breastfeeding continue even before the first year.
Breastfeeding.com stated that: “in comparing humans to other primates, research showed that humans’ natural age of weaning is a minimum of two and a half years and a maximum of between six and seven years.”
The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first four to six months of life and continued breastfeeding until at least two years.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for a minimum of one year, but offers no upper limit.