“Nearly 7 million young children die every year- and over 40% of those children are newborns.
Immediate breastfeeding within the first hour of birth could prevent 1 in 5 of these unnecessary deaths. That’s more than 500,000 children every year. More than 1,500 children every day. And breastfeeding does more than help children survive; it helps them thrive, with benefits that last a lifetime”, reads an excerpt of a letter from the UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake on the occasion of World Breastfeeding Week 2014.
When I was young I remember seeing my aunts breastfeed. I do not remember my own mother breastfeeding my sister though, and we were born five years apart. Unfortunately my mother passed away before I could ever discuss it. When I asked my grandmother, she told me that my mother fed both my sister and me for 1.5 years each.
Almost all mothers breastfeed their infants after birth. That is a given; we do not stop and think about how good breastfeeding actually is for both the baby and the mother.
Due to increase in factors like interventions in childbirth, babies being born via cesareans, many mothers have increasingly found it challenging to nurse. The other aspect is the formula and baby food industry gaining inroads into India around the mid to late 1970s. Many parents have been led to believe that somehow the highly processed substitutes are better than breast milk, sometimes causing them to wean the baby completely off breast milk much earlier than the WHO recommended age of at least two years. With the right support and information mothers and their families can overcome the challenges to breastfeed their babies, ensuring them a good start in life.
August 1st to 7th is celebrated world wide as World Breastfeeding Week. I would like to celebrate this nurturing bond between an infant and the mother by re-iterating 9 things that are great about breastfeeding:
1. Gentle, natural and expected transition from womb to world
Babies are wired to breastfeed and expect to be with the mother as soon as they are born. It is a continuum of care that the mother can provide which will cause her also to transition gently from having baby inside her to having the baby in her arms. Babies feel secure and safe at the mother’s breast, breathing in her familiar smell and hearing her familiar voice. Babies’ who are breastfed, skin-to-skin, immediately after birth, have the added advantage of colonizing the same bacteria as their mothers’, providing them with protection from infections and allergies.
Births attended by midwives are usually gentle ones with focus on mother and baby. While a few may still have had breastfeeding challenges, mothers describe the experience of holding their new born close to their bodies hours together after birth as a fulfilling experience. There are videos where gently birthed babies crawl to the breast unassisted and latch on themselves.
2. High nutrition and immunity
Colostrum, the clear secretion after childbirth, is known to provide the infant with immunity from infections, much needed if the birth was in the hospital. Baby suckling colostrum also helps her pass meconium and helps mother’s milk come in. Breast milk is the perfect food for the human baby, which provides the nourishment for the baby to grow and thrive. No other supplemental food can even come close to breast milk in terms of its nutritive value.
3. An oxytocin high
Nursing is known to release oxytocin in the mother’s body, the hormone of love which leads to the bonding between the mother and her baby. It also causes her uterus to contract to prevent postpartum hemorrhage and helps the uterus to return to the pre-pregnancy state. This hormone directs the breasts to release milk to the suckling infant, thereby starting the cycle of milk production. Nursing is also known to relax both the baby and the mother, encouraging both of them to drift off to sleep and get the much needed rest after labour and childbirth.
4. Connecting with the baby
After birth and up to one year, most of the baby’s needs are very basic and can be easily met through nursing. Babies usually nurse quite frequently in the first few weeks, to be close to the mother, to encourage her body to make milk and to make sure the mother slows down. It also helps the mother to tune into her instincts and learn to recognize the various ways her baby is communicating with her. It helps regulate the baby’s body temperature in addition to getting the required nutrition.
In case of premature infants, infants with complications and small babies it provides, more than ever, the essential food needed for survival and to help the babies grow better and overcome the complications. Studies have shown that breast milk for these babies has a different composition, tailor-made for each baby, containing higher concentrations of protein and some immunological components and minerals. A friend who had her twins last year told me how important it was for her to pump and give breast milk to her babies the entire time they were in the Neonatal ICU (NICU). She feels that it saved their lives and helped them over come all the complications after birth.
5. Great health benefits
Breastfeeding directly and indirectly impacts the health of both the baby and the mother. Providing optimum food for the baby helps her grow well, meet all developmental milestones, gives her a higher IQ than that of her supplemented peers. Iron and calcium from breast milk is absorbed better by the infant’s body as compared to the same nutrients in formula or other supplements like cow’s milk. Breast milk gives the much-needed time for the baby’s delicate digestive tract to develop and prepare for eating other foods. Breast milk ensures that that the baby’s gut is filled with good bacteria.
Benefits for the mother are there too. Breastfeeding is known to help her lose her excess pregnancy weight, protect her body from various cancers like breast cancer, ovarian cancer. It helps her retain and rebuild her iron reserves by delaying her periods. It helps her naturally prevent conception. Breastfeeding helps prevent osteoporosis in the mother. Breast milk contains all of the nutrients a baby needs even if the mother’s diet is deficient. To provide “perfect nutrition” for the baby, nutrients can be stripped out of the mother’s reserves. So, in the case of calcium, if a mother is not consuming sufficient calcium, it will be stripped from the mother’s bones. Later, after she weans, the bones will re-mineralize. This process of repeated stripping and re-mineralization is what makes the bones stronger in women who have breastfed, making them significantly less vulnerable to hip fracture later in life.
6. Gives baby a taste of real food!
The baby gets his first taste of food through breast milk. Whatever the mother eats, the baby gets a taste of it. Mothers can ensure that their children eat healthy, wholesome food through their lives by eating such food herself. This way, it helps keep the whole family healthy! When the baby finally tastes other foods after about 6 months of her life, she knows their taste. It is somehow familiar to her because she has sampled them through breast milk.
The baby nurses actively when she is hungry and may comfort nurse or not nurse at all when she is full and has other things to do. This way she regulates her own food intake and this forms the basis of healthy eating. If the mother goes on to practice baby-led-weaning (BLW), then the baby’s trust her in own instincts is reinforced.
7. Learning and connecting with the environment
Nursing is a learning experience for both the mother and baby. It teaches the mother to be patient, tune into and listen to her baby and teaches her how to become a parent. Breastfeeding teaches a baby to trust that his mother is always close by and that his needs will always be attended to. It teaches the mother that she can calm a distraught baby and help him recover from illness.
As the baby grows into a toddler, it helps him understand the environment around, because he knows that if he does not understand something, or finds himself overwhelmed, he can always return back to the most familiar thing in his world. When the child becomes more and more confident, he will slowly learn to rely on himself and less on nursing, which will finally lead him to wean off breast milk completely.
8. Convenience: less work for the mother and the family
No preparing bottles or formula, no sterilization. Mother can provide nourishment and comfort to her baby anywhere, anytime. She does not have to be socially isolated with her baby to make sure he is well fed and rested. She can get back to her life, wearing her baby and nursing on demand. Some of the mothers I know nurse their babies in slings and baby carriers. They go about their daily lives with baby close to mother and nursing on demand. It makes lives simple!
9. Save on costs, be good to the environment
Breastfeeding saves a family significant expense. In the early years, breastfed babies are healthier and therefore require fewer visits to a doctor. We cannot quantify what further costs may be saved later in life, but if one thinks in terms of reduced risk for various diseases, allergies, etc., those additional cost-savings could be huge. The high cost of formula is one of the reasons for low-income families to dilute it causing low weight gain and associated problems in babies. It also does not help that the instructions on the formula box are often in English and not the local language.
Celebrate natural wellness and health of all babies this week – if you are a new mother, nurse as often as you can. If you are working with mothers, encourage them to nurse, talk to them about its benefits. Even if not, share this piece to spread the word. Let’s do our bit for healthier babies all around.