There is more to breastfeeding than providing milk. Moms who breastfeed for at least six months can save lives! By improving the health status of their babies and themselves, breastfeeding moms have a positive impact on public health.
From the first drops of breast milk, called colostrum, babies receive important antibodies in a rich, gold liquid that coats the intestinal tract to create a barrier against harmful bacteria and help baby pass her first stools. As baby develops, the unique makeup of breast milk changes to meet its needs for nutrients and antibodies to protect it from illnesses and lower its likelihood to develop ear infections, diarrhea, respiratory infection, asthma and other conditions in comparison to formula fed babies.
In a disaster, breastfeeding can save a baby's life when electricity is knocked out or there's no access to stores. Breastfed babies are protected from a contaminated water supply and there's no special preparation required. In cold temperatures, breastfeeding can prevent hypothermia.
Breastfeeding supports a child's ability to learn and helps prevent obesity and chronic diseases later in life. And it provides a positive emotional impact for mom and baby through the release of "feel good" hormones.
Breastfeeding can save mom's life, too. The first act of nursing stimulates uterine contractions to reduce the likelihood of hemorrhaging and begin shrinking the uterus. In addition, breastfeeding burns 200-500 calories per day helping mom return to her pre-pregnancy weight.
Exclusive breastfeeding provides nearly 99 percent pregnancy prevention during the first six months giving mom time to physically recover between pregnancies. Incidence of ovarian, uterine and breast cancers also is less common in women who have breastfed.
From a practical standpoint, breastfeeding costs a family less than formula feeding, and because there's nothing to manufacture, dispose of or ship, it has less impact on the environment than formula. Breastfeeding also contributes to a more productive workforce since parents miss less work to care for sick infants.
The Centers for Disease Control's 2012 Breastfeeding Report Card shows the percentage of U.S. infants who begin breastfeeding is high at 77 percent with 49 percent still breastfeeding at six months. This is a 35 percent increase from 2000.
Research shows that if 90 percent of families breastfed exclusively for six months, the United States would save $13 billion per year in medical care costs because fully breastfed infants typically need fewer sick care visits, prescriptions and hospitalizations.
Each mom's breastfeeding choices and goals must be respected, but eliminating barriers at the workplace, public venues and even social pressure can help moms who choose to sustain breastfeeding to be successful.
Breastfeeding is a team effort and moms and babies need support from all those around them. Family and friends can offer encouragement, learn more about the long-term benefits, and help with baby care and household tasks to give mom a break. Health care providers can stay up-to-date with education and information related to breastfeeding. Employers and business owners can support breastfeeding by providing a quiet, clean place for mom to breastfeed and/or pump and store breast milk.
At the heart of it, breastfeeding is part of a special relationship between a mom and her baby - one that is a natural part of childbirth. When this relationship is respected and protected by the community, everyone benefits.
Natalie McCullen is a nurse and lactation consultant with The Birthplace at Susquehanna Health.