August is National Breastfeeding Month, and it’s interesting to note that breastfeeding once again is spiking in popularity among new moms as the preferred method of feeding their newborn babies. More than half of all new mothers now breastfeed their babies because they understand why it is so important.
There are multiple benefits of breastfeeding. One of the most obvious is that human milk straight from the breast is always sterile. It is not contaminated by polluted water or dirty bottles, which can lead to diseases in the infant. And it has special benefits that formulas cannot match, as well as providing all the protein, sugar, fat and vitamins your baby needs to be healthy.
In addition to necessary nutrients, human milk contains at least 100 other ingredients not found in formula, including just the right amount of fatty acids, lactose, water and amino acids for human digestion, brain development and growth.
Breast-fed babies are never allergic to their mother’s milk, although they may have reactions to items the mother eats. When these items are eliminated from her diet, that problem resolves itself. A breast-fed baby’s digestive tract contains large amounts of lactobacillus bifidus; this is a beneficial bacterium that prevents the growth of harmful organisms. They also have fewer illnesses because human milk transfers the mother’s antibodies against disease to her baby.
Approximately 80 percent of the cells in breast milk are macrophages, which are cells that kill bacteria, fungi and viruses. Breast-fed babies are protected, in varying degrees, from a number of illnesses, including pneumonia, botulism, bronchitis, staphylococcal infections, influenza, ear infections and German measles.
In addition, mothers produce antibodies to whatever disease is present in their environment, making their milk custom-designed to fight the diseases their babies will be exposed to.
Studies show that babies who were exclusively breast-fed during their first three months of life had a 34 percent lower risk of developing diabetes than those who were not breast-fed.
Research also suggests that breastfeeding may help to protect against sudden infant death syndrome, Hodgkin’s disease, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and Crohn’s disease — as well as other health problems. Because of the protective substances in human milk, breast-fed children also are less likely to have allergies, diarrhea or meningitis.
The psychological benefits of breastfeeding are equally important. Breastfeeding provides physical contact, warmth and closeness, which help to create a special bond between a mother and her baby. Many psychologists believe that nursing babies enjoy a heightened sense of security from the warmth and presence of their mother, especially when there’s skin-to-skin contact during feeding.
Parents of bottle-fed babies may be tempted to prop bottles in the baby’s mouth, with no human contact during feeding. But a nursing mother must cuddle her infant closely many times during the day. Nursing becomes a source of warmth and comfort.
Breastfeeding is good for new mothers as well as for their babies. It is certainly easier because there are no bottles to sterilize and no formula to buy, measure and mix.
It also may be easier for a new mother to lose the extra pounds from pregnancy because nursing uses up extra calories.
In addition, lactation stimulates the uterus to contract back to its original size, creating a slimmer abdomen.
Nursing mothers should avoid smoking. Nicotine can cause vomiting, diarrhea and restlessness in the baby, as well as decreased milk production for the mother.
Maternal smoking or passive smoke may increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome and may increase respiratory and ear infections.
Women interested in breastfeeding also should be aware that some viruses can pass through breast milk, and HIV —the virus that causes AIDS — is one of them. Women who are HIV positive should not breastfeed.
A few other illnesses, such as herpes, hepatitis and beta streptococcus infections, also can be transmitted through breast milk.
But most common illnesses, such as colds, flu or diarrhea, can’t be passed through breast milk. In fact, if you are sick, your breast milk will have antibodies in it. These antibodies will help protect your baby from getting the same sickness.
The longer a woman breast-feeds, the greater the benefits will be to her and her baby, and the longer these benefits will last.
For more breastfeeding basics, go to www.breastfeedingbasics.com/html/Benefits.shtml.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.