August is National Breastfeeding Month, so we wanted to share insights about the benefits and challenges of breastfeeding. We talked with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Farah Shafi, MD, to outline information most helpful for providers, patients, and family members that want to learn more.
For moms that choose to breastfeed, it is a process that requires a lot of support that starts in the hospital and continues at home during the first few weeks of a baby's life. While there are many advantages to breastfeeding, not everyone can do it or should do it due to circumstances beyond their control. There are both benefits and challenges to breastfeeding, which is why it is so important that providers and the public support a mom's choice in how she wants to have her infant fed.
Health benefits of breastfeeding
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding infants for the first six months with continued breastfeeding and introducing appropriate complementary foods for one year or longer. Breastfeeding helps boost the immune system of newborns early in life through the passive transmission of antibodies from breast milk to the baby. Studies also suggest a decrease in ear infections and lower risk for asthma, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes in breastfed newborns versus non breastfed babies. Another benefit of breastfeeding is bonding, where mom and baby can observe each other's behavior while building trust. Some studies show that bonding through breastfeeding can even improve child neurodevelopment.
The health benefits of breastfeeding aren't just for the baby; several extend to the mom. According to the American Heart Association, "research suggests women who breastfeed have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancers. The longer women nurse, whether with one child or over the course of several, the lower their risk." Studies also show that breastfeeding supports a mom's heart health—and lowers their risk of developing diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Breastfeeding also saves money, as baby formula can cost a family $1,200 to $1,500 a year on average. It's also more convenient, which saves time. You can breastfeed anywhere at any time without having to worry about sterilizing a bottle. For some, it's much easier not to deal with bottles, but that's not the case for everyone.
Challenges of breastfeeding
Dr. Shafi explained that it's easy to start breastfeeding for some, but for the vast majority, it's very challenging. It's a process both mom and baby have to get used to for it to work. There are some medical conditions where breastfeeding is contraindicated. So, either mom or the mom has a medical condition where she cannot breastfeed or is on medication, which would be unsafe for them to breastfeed—so there are several reasons why moms may want to breastfeed, but they're advised not to.
We've made many strides in the last ten years with breastfeeding promotion, so there's a lot to ensure that if moms want to breastfeed, they can be successful. Many hospitals in the area have what’s called a baby-friendly certification, which means babies can remain in mom’s room instead of going to the nursery. Hospital staff, including nurses, pediatricians, and lactation consultants, are trained to encourage moms who are breastfeeding because it's a process that needs a lot of support from others. Newborns must quickly learn how to latch onto mom's breast, so this process needs to happen within the first few days of life, preferably in the delivery room. Even if the mom had a C-section, it should start in the recovery room. When the baby is born, the mom's milk typically takes a couple of days to come in and frequent feedings help to ensure the baby get the necessary immune boost while also aiding with milk production. It's critical to have the baby go to the breast frequently because it helps for the baby to learn how to breastfeed and these feedings help to stimulate the mom's milk production through hormones (oxytocin and prolactin) produced in the brain. If they can get first through the first few of weeks and get into a breastfeeding routine, it becomes a much easier process that's beneficial for the baby. As always, new parents should consult their baby’s pediatrician on whether or not the baby is getting adequate nutrition through breastfeeding.
To learn why a doctor might recommend both breastfeeding and formula, read "Why exclusive breastfeeding doesn't work for every mom."