Breastfeeding is tough; no doubt about it. But, there seems to be a growing misconception that nursing is an impossibility for many mothers. It’s painted in a negative light, as if it’s a burden or an inevitable hardship rather than something to fight for, cherish and celebrate.
Hearing pregnant mothers suggest they’ll breastfeed “if they can”, or mothers being advised they need to “top-up” with formula due to “low supply” literally sabotages a woman’s ability to breastfeed and will most likely prematurely end her journey.
Physiologically speaking La Leche League International reports only around 2% of women should be unable to breastfeed, yet in the UK less than half of new mothers breastfeed at all beyond six weeks; one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding amongst Western nations. In spite of the World Health Organisation recommending women continue to nurse their children until two years of age, only 5% of women make it that far.
Disseminating misinformation is doing a great disservice to entire generations of mothers and babies.
In a recent article, Dr Jack Newman, Pediatrician and perhaps the world’s leading specialist in breastfeeding, suggests that “If the slightest problem arises with regard to the mother or baby and their breastfeeding relationship, the first thing many mothers will hear from doctors is “give the baby formula” or even “stop breastfeeding altogether.” From our experience with many thousands of mothers having come to our breastfeeding clinic during the past 32 years, I can say that in many such cases, with a little good help, the mother could carry on breastfeeding exclusively.”
My brave younger sister is a classic example of a mother who fought courageously to continue her breastfeeding journey. Through incorrect medical advice resulting in low supply, to misdiagnosed lip and tongue ties, mastitis and vasospasm, doctors recommended time and again to feed her newborn son formula instead. But her conviction and understanding of why this was something worth fighting for helped her endure the issues and find a way.
Contemplating the miraculous benefits of breastfeeding can help us find strength and give us a reason to push through the inevitable challenges it presents; from cracked nipples, engorged breasts, mastitis, bites and perhaps most challenging of all, our loss of independence.
If you can make it through the early trials and tribulations of breastfeeding you and your baby will be so grateful you did. I’m still nursing my three-and-a-half-year-old son and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m not suggesting for you to nurse for as long as I have. My sincere hope for you is that you’ll feel confident to follow your own path; only you and your baby can decide how long your journey will be.
So, here’s a list of some of the benefits of breastfeeding to help you get through those early “what the hell am I doing?” challenges.
1. Breastfeeding promotes bonding
You may remember the hormone oxytocin from the birth of your baby. After birth, through breastfeeding, it also helps the uterus contract. But that’s not all – oxytocin is the mother of maternal hormones. Released during nursing it makes mothers feel good and encourages maternal behavior. Breastfeeding creates a strong mother-baby bond not only through physical contact but also hormonally and emotionally.
2. Breastfeeding supports immune health
Breast milk protects babies against infection, allergies and disease. When a baby is unwell, her mother produces antibodies in her milk to help combat infections. Formula fed babies have an increased risk of ear infections, asthma, eczema, diabetes, obesity, diarrhoea and vision defects.
3. Breastfeeding supports mental and emotional development
The DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) present in human breast milk supports healthy brain development. Multiple studies show babies given breast milk early in life have a significantly higher IQ at age seven and more advanced social and motor skills. Studies have also shown a positive relationship between longer breastfeeding and social development. Elizabeth Baldwin, in Extended Breastfeeding and the Law says, “Meeting a child’s dependency needs is the key to helping that child achieve independence. And children outgrow these needs according to their own unique timetable.” Children who are forced into independence are less secure in that independence than those who have achieved independence at their own pace.
4. Breastfeeding promotes facial muscle development
Nursing babies use different muscles than those sucking on a bottle. Breastfed babies have better jaw, teeth, facial muscle and speech development compared to formula fed babies. Breastfed (and co sleeping) babies are less likely to use a pacifier. This helps reduce problems with jaw and teeth development – lowers the need for braces as a teenager (your baby…and your wallet will thank you!)
5. Breastfeeding is fast food!
In the middle of the night, on a road trip or on a plane, breast milk is always ready. It’s always the perfect temperature. And it never runs out. A hungry baby doesn’t like to wait so the convenience of breastfeeding is priceless.
6. Breastfeeding delays your period
Delayed periods – music to my ears! Most breastfeeding mothers can expect to miss their period for up to 15 months after baby arrives. This results in mother’s iron stores, which often dip during pregnancy, rebounding, reducing the risk of iron-deficiency anemia.
7. Breastfeeding is environmentally friendly
Do you know methane from cows contributes more to global warming than cars? By breastfeeding you’ll be reducing “emissions” from cows, not to mention the reductions in packaging, land and feed for cows, refrigeration, transport…the list goes on.
8. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS
Cow’s milk is designed for calves, not humans. So, what’s the difference for babies? The protein in cow’s milk is digested more slowly than the protein in human breast milk.
One benefit of formula, many would argue, is cow’s milk keeps babies satisfied longer. For many this means a deeper sleep. But nature doesn’t make mistakes. A deep sleeping baby can be dangerous. Babies are designed to sleep lightly and for short bursts. Breastfeeding encourages this as babies wake to nurse frequently, naturally protecting babies from sleeping too deeply and dying from SIDS.
9. Breastfeeding promotes weight loss
Milk production is an active physiological process. It uses 200-500 calories a day, which equates to swimming 30 laps in a pool or riding a bicycle uphill for an hour. One for Mama!
10. Breastfeeding helps prevent cancer
Non-breastfeeding mothers have been shown to have a higher risk for a number of cancers including ovarian, breast and uterine cancers. The longer mothers breastfeed the greater her risk is reduced.
11. Breastfeeding helps mothers feel happy
In addition to oxytocin other feel good hormones are released during breastfeeding. Prolactin, the milk-producing hormone, appears to produce a special calmness in mothers. Breastfeeding mothers have been shown to have a less intense response to adrenaline. Breastfeeding may help to reduce the incidence of post natal depression.
12. Breastfeeding calms babies and toddlers
Nothing calms an upset baby or toddler faster than nursing. Falls, frustrations, bumps, bruises, teething and tantrums are easily relieved with breastfeeding. Babies and toddlers seem to be psychologically wired to look for the breast in times of need. Breastfeeding is your mummy superpower.
13. Breastfeeding mothers get more sleep
Yes, you read that right…Studies show breastfeeding mothers get MORE sleep than formula-feeding mothers. According to one study, breastfeeding parents slept 40-45 minutes more per night during the first 3 months postpartum. Over a 3-month period, a little bit of extra sleep each night adds up. Any extra sleep promotes better mental health potentially decreasing mother’s risk of postpartum depression.
14. Breastfeed babies get more sleep
Babies are born with no established circadian rhythms. That means they can’t tell day from night taking several months to develop their own sleep cycles. Babies also don’t make their own melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone) for much of their early life. But, nature is clever and guess what has plenty of melatonin in it? Your nighttime breastmilk! So, melatonin-rich nighttime breastmilk helps babies develop their own circadian cycles and helps them learn to sleep for longer stretches at night.
15. Breastfeed babies feel happy
In addition to melatonin, breastmilk is rich in other sleep-inducing and brain-boosting substances. Darcia Narvaez, PhD, Early Childhood Researcher of the University of Notre Dame says:
“Parents should know that breastmilk in the evening contains more tryptophan (a sleep-inducing amino acid). Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, a vital hormone for brain function and development. In early life, tryptophan ingestion leads to more serotonin receptor development. Nighttime breastmilk also has amino acids that promote serotonin synthesis. Serotonin makes the brain work better, keeps one in a good mood, and helps with sleep-wake cycles. So it may be especially important for children to have evening or night breastmilk because it has tryptophan in it, for reasons beyond getting them to sleep.”
THE JUICE IS WORTH THE SQUEEZE
A newborn’s range of vision is 8-15 inches. Which happens to be the distance between a mother and baby’s face while breastfeeding. This distance most likely evolved because of breastfeeding – it gives me goose bumps just contemplating the perfection of mother nature. An excellent excerpt from a post Why Mothers Nurse Their Children into Toddlerhood by Norma Bumgarner of the Natural Child Project goes like this:
“No matter how much effort has gone into the selling of distance between mother and child – distance achieved by mother substitutes, like playpens and pacifiers, and by child substitutes, like hobbies and pets – mothers, it seems, cannot be changed. We still are happiest when we can hold our children close.”
Norma is spot on. When we hold our children close something magical happens. Perhaps the greatest benefits of breastfeeding can’t be articulated in words. It’s tough at times but the juice is worth the squeeze. Nursing makes our closeness even more intimate and unique. Enjoy and cherish your breastfeeding bond with your little one.