Health Matters: Breastfeeding as a Foundation for Life
Breastfeeding is nature’s way of providing the best possible start for newborns, while helping new mothers bond with their babies and gain health benefits of their own. Scientists worldwide agree: breastfeeding is the optimal way to feed babies—hands down.
Oftentimes, women who believe they can’t breastfeed simply didn’t get the support they needed to overcome common challenges. Sometimes a baby struggles to latch on. Other times, mothers aren’t sure how to handle problems like engorgement, plugged ducts, mastitis, or sore nipples. The truth is, there’s help for all of these issues, and most are relatively easy to fix.
To breastfeed successfully, time is of the essence. In the weeks after a baby is born, new mothers can feel overwhelmed with the responsibilities that come with motherhood: feeding, bathing, clothing, managing sleep patterns, and more. This is why it is so important for primary care providers to educate themselves about breastfeeding and/or reach out to experts who can help their patients breastfeed in the days and weeks after childbirth.
In explaining to new mothers why it is worth sticking with breastfeeding, I often share that in addition to health benefits, breastfeeding is less expensive and, in many ways, more convenient than bottle-feeding. With breastfeeding, the food is always ready and available, it’s the perfect temperature, and it’s free. But even if it weren’t, breastfeeding would still be worth it.
Breastfeeding helps prepare babies for the solid foods that get introduced later, because breast milk changes with the mother’s diet, expanding the baby’s palate. Breastfeeding also helps babies develop the healthy gut bacteria needed for good digestion. In addition to nutrition, breast milk passes on antibodies and other immunologic substances that protect babies against infection and disease, and breastfeeding reduces the chance that infants will develop allergies and asthma. Infant formula does none of these things.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “This defense against illnesses significantly decreases the chances that your breastfeeding baby will suffer from ear infections, vomiting, diarrhea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, or certain types of spinal meningitis.” Interestingly, children who breastfeed for more than six months are also less likely to develop childhood acute leukemia and lymphoma than those who receive formula.
Breastfeeding is good for all babies but can be particularly important for babies born to low-income families. According to the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, “Breastfeeding is a universal solution that levels the playing field, giving everyone a fair start in life. It improves the health, wellbeing and survival of women and children around the world.” Sadly, economically vulnerable women often have a harder time breastfeeding because their jobs are less flexible—it’s harder for them to work around the baby’s feeding schedule or manage pumping at work. I hope any employers who read this consider ways to make breastfeeding easier for new mothers in their workplace. It’s so important!
I understand that circumstances can complicate breastfeeding, and through my work I provide support for all mothers to reach their own infant feeding goals. For the majority of mothers, I encourage breastfeeding. Thanks in part to the dedication and knowledge of Care for Her providers, most of the babies born at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley breastfeed successfully. We also have several other resources for breastfeeding mothers here in Ukiah. A wonderful online resource funded by First 5 Mendocino is www.breaststart.org. If you’re a mother having trouble breastfeeding, call the local, toll-free hotline: 1–855–855-MILK (6455). The Mendocino County Women Infant Children (WIC) office also offers excellent advice and services. You can call them at 707-472-2731. If you are a patient at Hillside Health Center, our primary care providers are trained in lactation and I spend a day a week there helping mothers and babies breastfeed successfully.
If you’re having trouble, don’t give up! Help is out there.
Tess O’Connell is a lactation consultant and registered dietitian nutritionist at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people of all ages in Lake and Mendocino Counties.