Whether or not a mother breastfeeds her baby is an intensely personal decision that involves many factors. Indeed, when a mother feeds her child, whether through breastfeeding or through breast milk in a bottle or formula in a bottle, it is an episode of intense and valuable nurturing and bonding.
Yet, it is also the case that years and years of high-level scientific and medical research has identified considerable health benefits that breastfeeding provides both infant and mother. So valid and extensive is this evidence, that public and private organizations are promoting campaigns to educate women about breastfeeding, and to encourage the practice.
Some women do not breastfeed because they are unable to produce their own milk. In this circumstance, throughout history, an option available to women is “wet nursing,” a practice – not nearly as popular today as in times past – in which a woman other than the mother of the baby breastfeeds the child.
Today, as well, there is another form of wet nursing in which a mother obtains breast milk through a certified breast milk bank. (More information on breast milk banks is found later in this post.)
While the breast milk of a baby’s biological mother is best for that baby, contaminant-free breast milk from another woman, who is healthy, is an excellent source of nutrition.
And, for sure, women who choose not to feed their babies breast milk have available to them many options of formula that continue to improve in quality, and also in varieties that enable more individualized nourishment.
So, what is it about breastfeeding and breast milk that is so healthy?
First off, and fundamentally, it is the organic nature of mother’s milk – it changes daily so as to best meet the nutritional need of the baby.
Mother’s breast milk supplies a baby with optimum nutrients but also protective antibodies which boost the immune system.
The advantages of breastfeeding also accrue to the mother, including reducing the risk of breast cancer, uterine and ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis; promoting postpartum weight loss; and, when compared with what a mother would spend on formula, breastfeeding saves money (the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that over the first year of breastfeeding a mother saves $400 on what she would have spent if she fed her baby with formula).
Breastfeeding went considerably out of favor in the early 1900s with the advent of the “bottle” and formula. In fact, it became the “in” thing not to breastfeed, for that was widely considered common as opposed to the more sophisticated (and let’s not forget less physically and mentally demanding) feeding with a bottle. During the mid-1900s, about 80 percent of all babies in the U.S. were bottle-fed.
America has returned to breastfeeding. Yet, it seems too many women do not stick with it long enough. Pediatricians recommend at least a year, with other foods gradually introduced during this period. After the birth of their baby, three out of four mothers start out breastfeeding, but at the end of six months, only 43 percent are still doing so.
In an effort to improve breastfeeding statistics, the office of the U.S. Surgeon General in 2011 released a study and launched a public information campaign, titled, The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breast Feeding.
Call to Action emphasized the value of breastfeeding, and it also promoted public support and accommodation for breastfeeding.
In the forward to Call to Action, U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin wrote, “I have issued this Call to Action because the time has come to set forth the important roles and responsibilities of clinicians, employers, communities, researchers, and government leaders and to urge us all to take on a commitment to enable mothers to meet their personal goals for breastfeeding.”
One of the primary focuses of the study and campaign is to create more options and places for women to breastfeed at work and when out in public.
Women start producing milk around the 16th week of pregnancy.
Breastfeeding takes practice. And there can be any number of hiccups (sometimes literally) and awkwardness and lack of coordination between mommy and baby. Many mothers have difficulty producing enough milk for their infant.
Specially trained and certified lactation consultants, part of a rapidly growing field, help mothers and babies nurse more effectively, and deliver general support and comfort in the nursing process.
Lactation consultants work one on one, or with groups; they also teach classes. They may counsel on feeding schedules, and on the mechanics of breastfeeding; for example, how a woman should position herself and her baby; how a mother can use a breast pump, or massage or another technique to induce milk flow and increase the nourishment the baby receives.
A lactation consultant can advise on diet that can improve the quality of milk, and how to work with and remedy internal medical conditions that may inhibit milk flow and production.
There are many reasons that women cannot produce milk, among them that her baby arrived prematurely. In cases in which a woman does not have sufficient milk for her infant, lactation consultants can network her to a milk bank that holds certification through the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), where she can obtain screened and heat-treated donated mother’s milk.
Again, provided that the mother’s milk is contaminant free and is properly screened, it is superior to formula as a nutrient source for a baby.
Actually, the first breast milk bank in the United States was founded nearby, at Boston’s Floating Hospital in 1911. When the breast milk bank at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, which had opened in 1975, closed in 2001, the northeast region of the U.S. was left without a milk bank.
Filling the void was Mothers' Milk Bank of New England (MMBNE) founded in 2006 by a small cadre of nurses, mothers, and lactation consultants.
The evidence is strong that upping the numbers of women who breastfeed, and also increasing the duration they breastfeed, can contribute and support a healthier society.
On February 13th at 7 pm, Acton Pharmacy will host a free in-store public education event on breastfeeding that will feature local lactation consultant Michele Stolow. Please call Acton Pharmacy at (978) 263-3901 to reserve a seat.
Raied "Ray" and Saad Dinno, brothers, are registered pharmacists and owners of Acton Pharmacy, Keyes Drug in Newton, and West Concord Pharmacy. In addition to the public education event on breastfeeding that Michelle Stolow will give at Acton Pharmacy, she will also appear soon on Saad Dinno's new Acton Cable Access show, A Healthier You, to discuss breastfeeding basics.