The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that breast-feeding helps protect infants against different diseases and conditions, including Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, lymphoma and leukemia and childhood obesity. For mothers, it’s also linked to decreased postpartum bleeding and lowered risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
“Breast-feeding is a gift that can last a lifetime,” said Virgie Cuenca, IBCLC. “It’s not just food, but protection and medicine for your baby.”
Although the benefits are substantial, the process of breast-feeding can come with trials and tribulations.
The AAP recommends that mothers breast-feed their infants for the first six months and continue breast-feeding as complementary foods are introduced to a child’s diet after six months. Mothers can conclude breast-feeding after 12 months, depending on the desires of the mother and child.
What’s in breast milk?
Breast milk is biologically designed to act as the best source of nutrition for infants. It includes many important components that help strengthen the infant’s immune system, protect them from infection and disease, and support their physical and neurological development. “It is a living, dynamic fluid that provides for the baby in unique ways,” Cuenca said.
Human milk contains protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, hormones, antibodies and probiotics/prebiotics, among others.
Breast-feeding has been linked to long-term and short-term health benefits for infants. It’s been shown to decrease allergies, asthma, respiratory infections, ear infections and diarrhea throughout one’s lifetime.
The skin-to-skin touch and eye contact during breast-feeding has been shown to strengthen the bond between mother and child. It also may increase the emotional security of the infant and may lower the instances of postpartum depression in mothers.
Tips for learning to breast-feed
The biological and physiological incentives for breast-feeding are strong, but while this natural process is hardwired into human anatomy, it’s a skill that requires practice and patience to learn.
Prior to giving birth, talk to your doctor about your desire to breast-feed and make a plan that will support breast-feeding immediately after delivery. Your doctor can help connect you with a lactation consultant prior to delivery, and may be able to recommend breast-feeding classes available in your area.
“Education and lactation support are the best ways to prepare and overcome challenges faced during breast-feeding,” Cuenca said.
Be sure to discuss any past medical procedures, surgery or injuries, as well as any medications you’re taking, to avoid possible interference with your plans to breast-feed.
Getting comfortable with breast-feeding can take time. It’s important to ensure that the process is as easy as possible for mother and child. Mothers should consider creating a cozy place to nurse, learn the optimal breast-feeding positions and recognize the signs of their infant’s hunger.
Using a breast pump can make breast-feeding more manageable for mothers and help ensure that milk is available for the infant even when the mother is not able to nurse directly.
“Breast pumps are covered by most insurance,” Cuenca said. “Do not borrow a used breast pump, even from a family member.”
Common problems that affect breast-feeding
Some infants may struggle to latch properly when beginning to breast-feed. It should not feel painful for mothers, and if discomfort is involved, the infant may need to be helped into a better latching position.
After the first couple of weeks, some mothers may experience sore or chapped nipples, which can cause pain. To help treat this common problem, look for balms that are created to soothe the skin around the nipple.
Making enough milk
A mother’s body is usually able to produce as much milk as necessary for a growing infant, but at times, the milk may seem to run dry.
To combat this issue, be sure to empty the breast entirely during each feeding, which encourages new milk production. Mothers should discuss this concern with their physician, who can help set reasonable expectations and evaluate the infant for proper nutrition and growth.
Clogged ducts and mastitis
Clogged milk ducts can cause hard, lumpy deposits in the breast that can be painful and lead to infection.
Warm compresses, rest and nursing often can help overcome this problem. If the breast becomes infected because of a clogged duct or because of mastitis, a common bacterial infection, mothers will need antibiotics.
Nursing isn’t for everyone
While the argument in favor of breast-feeding is strong, it’s simply not possible for all mothers. It should not be a source of stress or concern.
A few medical issues can make breast-feeding dangerous, including HIV and T-cell lymphotropic virus in the mother, and some rare metabolic conditions in the child. Some medications are not advised while breast-feeding, so talk to your doctor about your options.