Your body is an impressive machine, especially when it comes to having a baby. Both during and after pregnancy, your body works hard to support the growth of your developing baby. One way it does this is by producing a seemingly magical substance — breast milk.
Breast milk is the perfect food for your baby, formulated specifically to promote their healthy development. Robin Frees, Lactation Consultant and Baby-Friendly Co-Coordinator at Chester County Hospital, has been working with breastfeeding moms for over 30 years — 13 of them at CCH.
As a lactation consultant, Frees assists breastfeeding moms, creates feeding plans, educates Chester County Hospital staff, and develops breastfeeding-related policies within the hospital. According to Frees, the benefits of breastfeeding are vast, but some moms may not have the support they need. As a result, most babies in the US are not breastfed as long as recommended.
The first week of August is World Breastfeeding Week, which is the perfect time to understand the many benefits of breastfeeding. This year, the theme is Protect Breastfeeding: A Shared Responsibility.
"Moms need all kinds of support," says Frees. "It’s important to look at all the different touchpoints of who mothers come in contact with, and what people can do to help that mother reach her goals for breastfeeding." These touchpoints range from healthcare providers, who encourage mothers to learn about breastfeeding, to family members, who cook, shop, and do laundry, to even bosses, who can support mothers pumping at work. All of these roles can have an impact on a mom’s experience with breastfeeding.
Here are 5 benefits of breastfeeding — and how you (and the moms in your life) can protect breastfeeding by making the process easier and more comfortable.
1. Breastfeeding Protects Your Baby From Illness.
As your baby is taking in the new sounds, sights, and smells of their new world, they’re also being exposed to brand new germs. Fortunately, the cells, hormones, and antibodies in breast milk are an excellent form of protection.
"This is one of the top important differences from formula," says Frees. "There are living cells inside of breast milk. Those cells are antibodies that the mom has developed to illness since babies don’t have a really strong immune system for the first 6 months or so."
Breast milk can lower your baby’s risk of:
- Ear infections
- Stomach bugs
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Lower respiratory infections
- Type 2 diabetes
- Childhood leukemia
- Childhood obesity
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
Not only does breastfeeding transmit protective antibodies from mom to baby, it can also work the other way around.
"Babies that are in daycare may be exposed to different germs than the mother," explains Frees. "If they breastfeed — if their mouth is actually on the mom’s nipple — they transmit information about those germs back to the mother, whose body makes antibodies to give back to the baby."
2. Breastfeeding Provides Your Baby with Important Nutrients.
Right after birth, your body produces a thick first milk — sometimes referred to as liquid gold because of its deep yellow color — called colostrum. During the first few days of breastfeeding, your baby gets a tiny bit of colostrum, which is rich in nutrients and helps your baby's digestive system grow and develop.
After 3 to 5 days, colostrum changes into mature milk, which — regardless of the mother’s diet — has just the right combination of sugar, water, fat, and protein to continue to support your baby's healthy growth and development. As your baby continues to grow, your milk will keep changing to meet the unique needs of your baby.
"Breast milk has everything a baby needs," explains Frees. Due to a modern lifestyle, some women’s milk may have a vitamin D deficiency, which is easily addressed by the mom taking a vitamin D supplement and/or the baby taking vitamin D. Vitamin B12 may also be a concern for vegan mothers. Lactation Consultants can easily advise mothers about their dietary choices for the best outcomes.
Important hormones are also transmitted during breastfeeding, such as cortisol in the morning and tryptophan in the evening. This helps babies develop their circadian rhythms — a welcome concept for parents helping their babies adjust to a sleep schedule.
3. Breastfeeding Promotes Your Health.
Breastfeeding isn't just good for your baby — it also benefits your health. Breastfeeding helps to ease postpartum bleeding and shrink the uterus back to pre-pregnancy size. It can also reduce your risk of:
- Breast and ovarian cancer
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
What’s more, many women say breastfeeding has helped them get back to their pre-pregnancy weight more quickly. "Breastfeeding burns 500 extra calories a day," explains Frees. "During pregnancy, moms gain weight to support their babies. That's what the body is burning when lactating."
4. Breastfeeding Saves You Money.
From nursery decor to adorable clothes to engaging toys, there's no denying that you spend a decent amount of money on a new baby. Add formula into the mix — which can cost up to $1,500 a year — and it can be easy to feel the financial strain.
Breastfeeding can help reduce your spending because your body produces everything your baby needs to stay healthy. "Many women get pillows, bras, and pumps, but breastfeeding has been successful since the dawn of time — even without all the bells and whistles," says Frees.
Additionally, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) — a government program designed to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children by providing nutritious foods, information on healthy eating, and referrals to healthcare — offers special benefits to breastfeeding moms. For instance, moms who breastfeed are able to participate in WIC longer than those who don’t and are allotted more food for themselves.
And if you're wondering about that expensive breast pump, don’t worry. You can get a free breast pump (either a rental unit or new) through your health insurance.
5. Breastfeeding helps you bond with your baby.
As a new parent, there’s a lot on your plate. Amidst the doctor’s appointments, playdates and photoshoots, breastfeeding can be a great opportunity to have some one-on-one time to bond with your baby.
"Bonding is built into breastfeeding," says Frees. "Developmentally, babies are meant to be held."
When you breastfeed, you’re holding your baby and using skin-to-skin contact to promote bonding. In fact, women who breastfeed longer have been shown to exhibit more maternal sensitivity, including factors like your emotional tone and ability to read your baby's cues, both during and beyond breastfeeding years.
Making Breastfeeding Easier — and More Comfortable — for You and Your Baby
Despite the benefits of breastfeeding, there are plenty of reasons moms might choose not to breastfeed until the recommended age of one. According to Frees, these can range from sore nipples to low milk supply to simply getting frustrated with the process.
If you're facing any of these problems, you're not alone. Not only do many other women struggle with the same concerns, but this is also what lactation consultants are trained to address.
In many cases, there's a problem that you might not even be aware of, such as a tongue tie (when the bottom of a baby’s tongue's tip is attached to the floor of the mouth) or hormonal issues. These are just a few of the roadblocks lactation consultants can help you address.
“If no one gets to the root of the problem, then it's still a problem,” explains Frees.
Some mothers also get frustrated with the time commitment of breastfeeding, particularly because no one else can do it for them. However, there are plenty of ways that people in your life can help, such as bathe, burp, or walk the baby — all you need to do is ask.
Frees also emphasizes that breastfeeding can seem tough at first because babies are building their milk supply, and they’re nursing very frequently. Not only does this need to breastfeed so often subside after about two weeks, but you’ll also get used to the process over time.
In many ways, breastfeeding seems almost magical — your body produces the exact food your baby needs, when they need it. But it can also be challenging. By keeping in mind the benefits for both you and your baby, remaining patient, and asking for help when you need it, you can ensure your baby receives the best possible nutrition for their growth and development.
If You Have Questions About Breastfeeding, call the Chester County Hospital Lactation Consultants Office at 610-738-2582 and join our Facebook group, Chester County Hospital Mother and Baby.
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