08 August 2003

Breast is best

A multitude of recent studies show what perhaps our foremothers knew all along: That when it comes to the health of your baby, breast is best.

It wasn't that long ago that breast-feeding was considered one of the best things a mother could do for her child.

Then along came the baby-boom generation, and a relatively new concept called baby formula. In a wink of an eye, breast-feeding was placed on life's back burner, where it stayed for several generations.

Breast milk is in vogue, once again
Now, the pendulum has swung back and breast-feeding is in vogue once more. Interestingly, it is often most popular among those mothers who themselves were not breast-fed.

I turned out just fine but I often tell my mother, 'Just think about how truly great I could have been if you only had breast-fed me,' nurse midwife and lactation counsellor Leslie Rebarber says with a wink and a smile.

A multitude of recent studies show what perhaps our foremothers knew all along: That when it comes to the health of your baby, breast is best.

That's the message doctors and other health-care experts spread from Aug. 1 to 7, World Breastfeeding Week.

Even if you can manage to breast-feed for just the first two or three weeks after birth, the benefits to your baby will be enormous, Rebarber says.

The many benefits of lactation
According to studies by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some of those benefits include fewer bouts of diarrhoea, less risk of respiratory problems and fewer ear infections. And the more breast milk a baby receives during the first six months of life, the less he or she will experience these otherwise common newborn ills.

Also important, says Rebarber, is that breast-feeding reduces the risk of colic - a common gastrointestinal ailment that not only keeps baby up all night, but Mom and Dad as well.

In still another study published in 1999 in the British Medical Journal, a group of Australian researchers found that breast-feeding for just four months after birth reduced a child's future risk of developing asthma.

Breast milk can't be copied
According to New York University lactation counsellor Jan Wenk, if your child is born prematurely the benefits of breast-feeding may be even greater, including a decreased risk of all types of infections, as well as a reduced risk of high blood pressure later in life.

Try as they might, companies manufacturing infant formula cannot duplicate mother's milk, or the multitude of factors that have this enormous protective effect on baby's health, Wenk says./p>

The magic elixir analysed
How exactly does breast milk work its magic?

As Wenk explains, all babies are born with minimal immune system protection. It can take up to one year after birth - sometimes longer - for a child to develop a good measure of protection against even common diseases such as ear infections, stomach viruses and colds.

However, when an infant is breast-fed, the mother's immune factors are conferred to the baby so it is far less likely to get sick.

Breast milk contains the full complement of immune factors from the mother, so the baby has all that protection until their own system is strong enough to take over, Wenk explains.

More than protection from illness
But breast milk offers more than protection from illness. Because it's such a perfect source of nutrients - exactly balanced to suit a baby's needs - breast milk can also help contribute to growth and development, even influencing the child's brain power later in life.

In an analysis of 20 studies on breast-feeding published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1999, researchers found breast-fed babies had a higher IQ than bottle-fed babies - and that nutrients in the mother's milk accounted for about 60 percent of that increase.

The other 40 percent was attributed to maternal-baby bonding, which Wenk says is also an important part of the breast-feeding experience.

Breast-feeding creates a sense of security and comfort that not only impacts a baby's physical health, but increases their sense of well-being right from the moment of birth, Wenk says.

How it helps moms
But it's not just baby who is calmed during breast-feeding - it relaxes the mother as well.

When you are breast-feeding you are producing prolactin and progesterone, two hormones that increase feelings of calm and relaxation. Plus, the time you take with your baby, that quiet, one-on-one experience of breast-feeding, also has a very strong therapeutic and relaxing effect on the mother, Rebarber says.

She believes breast-feeding may help a new mother snap out of postpartum baby blues, or even avoid them altogether.

Need more proof of breast-feeding's benefits?

Studies show women who breast-feed also experience a reduced risk of both breast and uterine cancer later in life. And for those new mothers looking to get back into their pre-pregnancy bikini in record time, breast-feeding can help them do it.

It helps the uterus to shrink more quickly to its pre-pregnancy size, so your tummy gets flatter faster, Rebarber says.

The most natural thing to do
In the end, both Wenk and Rebarber say, the decision to breast-feed should be an easy one for a woman.

It's best for baby, it's good for mom and, next to getting pregnant and giving birth, it's the most natural, normal activity in the world, Wenk says. - (HealthDayNews)

Read more:
Breast Centre
Another reason to breastfeed


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.