The scientific data supporting the notion that breastfeeding is best for both mothers and their babies continue to grow. The basic phenomenon underpinning this natural fact is that breast milk is species-specific — human breast milk has evolved to uniquely nurture baby humans. As a result, breastfed children have fewer infections, including some usual childhood illnesses such as ear infections and diarrhea, along with several serious ones such as meningitis, and fewer chronic diseases such as diabetes, celiac disease, obesity and asthma. They are also smarter, which is possibly due to some fats found in human breast milk that are important for brain development.
Breastfeeding is beneficial for moms in a number of ways. It helps them get back to their pre-pregnancy weight in 80 percent of cases (some women don’t lose weight while they are breastfeeding, but they do get to take in about 500 extra calories a day). Women generally don’t get their periods when they breastfeed and, thus, have some protection against pregnancy and a chance to recover from anemia they sometimes develop during childbirth. In addition, women who have breastfed their babies have a reduced risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis.
Breastfeeding also allows a mother precious personal time with her child. Even if she is working outside the home — which is the case with most new mothers in the U.S. today — she can experience the special closeness to her child that nursing provides when she comes home from her day on the job.
Take Advantage of Support
Breastfeeding is easy for some women and their babies, while for others it presents challenges — and sometimes just doesn’t work. Support is available if you need it.
• Reading a book or taking a class can help prepare you, but a knowledgeable friend who can help you get started is even better.
• Many pediatricians, obstetricians and midwives can help direct you to breastfeeding support in your community.
• Certified lactation consultants are trained professionals who provide expert lactation advice. Visit www.ilca.org/falc.html for a list by zip code.
• La Leche League — a nonprofi t organization whose mission is to help mothers worldwide to breastfeed through mother-to-mother support, education, information and encouragement — has many local chapters and a comprehensive Web site, www.lllusa.org.
There will always be bumps in the road. One of the most challenging things for a new mother is sorting out the conflicting opinions on breastfeeding that come from multiple sources (nurses, doctors, mothers-in-law, friends, to name a few), especially in those sleep-deprived and sore first few days. It is important to remember that you are the expert on yourself and your baby. No matter what you decide about breastfeeding, keep in mind that many formula-fed as well as breastfed babies have gone very far in the world.
Important Steps for Successful Breastfeeding
1. Breastfeed in the delivery room. Even if you are beat, this is when your baby is the most awake he will be in the first 24 hours, and you should take advantage of this window of opportunity to get off to a good start.
2. Know how often to feed. A goal is 6 to 8 times in the first 24 hours, and then 10 to 12 times a day from then on.
3. Keep your baby with you overnight. In the nursery nurses are watching several babies and may not notice the first feeding cues that signal your baby’s readiness to suckle (stirring, lip smacking, sucking on a fist).
4. Be sure your baby latches on. A good latch shouldn’t hurt much. If you are uncertain if your baby is latched on correctly, get a consult.
5. Learn to hear your baby swallow. Some babies just suck, but they need to swallow. The characteristic motion and “puff” sounds are subtle. You should recognize them for reassurance that your baby is getting nutrition.
6. Monitor input and output. Keep track of feedings, “pees” and “poops” to help you evaluate how well things are going.
Martha Richardson, M.D., is an ob/gyn and Harvard Vanguard Medical Associate at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She teaches Harvard medical students about breastfeeding and loves to help her patients navigate the first few days of nursing.
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