Despite compelling arguments to breast-feed babies for a year or longer, most mothers who opt to breast-feed stop doing so completely by the time their babies are six months old. According to the US Surgeon General, 75 percent of American mothers breast-feed their newborn babies; however, after six months, only 43 percent breast-feed, and of those babies, only 13 percent are breast-fed exclusively. But organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), along with the Surgeon General, have argued that breast-feeding—for however long a mother is able to do so—should be better supported because it has tremendous benefits for both the mother and child.
Mothers reap both health and financial rewards by breast-feeding. Many women find that breast-feeding helps them create special bonds with their babies. Physiologically, prolactin—a hormone released during breast-feeding—helps women relax, which can otherwise be difficult due to sleep deprivation and life changes that accompany a baby’s birth. Another released hormone, oxytocin, helps the uterus heal and return to its pre-pregnancy state. Breast-feeding reduces a woman’s risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis, and the longer she breast-feeds, the lower her risk. In addition, many mothers find that breast-feeding helps them lose the extra weight they gained during pregnancy.
Women who are able and willing to breast-feed also discover a substantial financial benefit. Infant formula can cost $1,200 to $1,500 per year! Add that to the cost of bottles, nipples and other supplies, and the price can be overwhelming.
While breast-feeding is certainly advantageous for the mother, breast-fed babies are the greatest beneficiaries, even if they are breast-fed for a short period of time. These babies have boosted immune systems, which results in a greater ability to fight diarrhea and pneumonia. Babies who are breast-fed during the first few days of life digest colostrums, which provide unique disease-fighting antibodies. Once a mother’s milk comes in—usually a few days after birth—breast-feeding continues to provide babies with lesser, but still beneficial immune-boosting antibodies. Breast-fed babies demonstrate a lower incidence of digestive problems, colic, respiratory illnesses and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Babies who are breast-fed for a few months may have a lower incidence of ear infections.
A baby can obtain all necessary nutrients from breast milk during the first six months of life. For the following six months, breast milk can provide at least half of a child’s necessary nutrients, and during the following year, a child can receive up to one-third of his or her necessary nutrients from breast milk. Once a baby begins eating solid food, breast milk can continue to enhance immunity, which can help during the “everything in my mouth” phase! Interestingly, the antibodies in breast milk become more concentrated as the amount of consumption decreases; therefore, babies and toddlers continue to receive health benefits, even as they nurse less frequently.
Breast-feeding can also have longer-reaching benefits. Because breast-fed babies can consume six times as much cholesterol as the average adult, the body learns to metabolize cholesterol and can potentially control cholesterol levels even in adulthood. Breastfeeding for a year or more can help protect your child from developing colitis, diabetes, asthma, Crohn’s disease and obesity later in life.
WHO has recommended breast-feeding exclusively for six months, and then continuing to supplement a child’s diet with breast milk until he or she is at least two years old. Understandably, breast-feeding can be more difficult than expected for some mothers. For this reason, the Surgeon General has encouraged employers, friends and family members to educate themselves in order to better support nursing mothers. Lactation consultants and support groups like ]]>La Leche League]]> can help, too.
WHO and UNICEF have recommended beginning to breast-feed within an hour after a baby is born. They also have suggested feeding on demand to help mothers breast-feed exclusively for six months.
The Surgeon General’s “Healthy People 2020” program aims to encourage breast-feeding, so that by 2020, 82 percent of babies will be breast-fed for some period of time, 61 percent for six months and 34 percent for a year. Whatever a woman chooses for herself and her baby, it’s satisfying to know that even short-term breast-feeding can provide substantial benefits to both mother and baby.
Hillary Easom breast-fed each of her children for 16 months.
Reviewed June 29, 2011
Edited by Kate Kunkel