By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Breast milk from the mother, or another lactating mother (in case of unwilling mothers and royalty), has nourished, protected and helped raise babies since time immemorial. Like all mammals humans possess mammary glands for the purpose of feeding their infants before they are ready for food from other sources.
It is only for the past 100 years or so that artificial food, known as infant formula has been available. The infant formula makers have worked hard to make the formula as similar to mother’s milk as possible noting the benefits offered by natural breast milk to the baby.
Benefits of breastfeeding
Breastfed babies experience lasting health benefits. This includes helping to prevent several diseases like:
Women who breastfeed also derive several benefits in addition to protecting and nourishing their babies. These women, for example, have a lower risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Breastfeeding saves lives. If every baby were exclusively breastfed from birth to up to six months of age approximately 1.5 million lives would be saved each year. The incidence of diseases among these babies would be significantly reduced.
Breast milk possesses all the nutrients babies need for good health and growth. Breast milk stimulates the immature immune system of the babies and also improves response to vaccinations.
It contains several antibodies and enzymes that help the baby grow up to resist diseases. This is something no infant formula manufacturer may equal.
Breast milk also has the advantage of no requirement of heating, no risk of spoiling and no requirement of sterilization.
Above all breastfeeding helps the new mother born with her baby as no other exercise can. It helps the baby recognise its mother and the mother overcome the immediate emotional aftermath of childbirth.
Another major benefit from breast feeding is cost. Breastfeeding reduces health care costs to the family and society.
The annual cost of feeding a standard infant formula to a baby is estimated at $1,500.
In addition both private and government insurance agencies spend approximately $3.6 billion in treatment of diseases and conditions that can be prevented by exclusive breastfeeding including gastrointestinal infections, respiratory infections, ear infections etc. 5
Benefits of breastfeeding to the mother
Mothers benefit from breastfeeding as well. Immediate beginning of breastfeeding after a normal vaginal birth can reduce the risk of postpartum bleeding and helps the mother regain her pre-pregnancy body weight earlier.
Breastfeeding delays the return of menstrual cycles after childbirth and thus provides a period of natural infertility.
Breastfeeding has long term benefits for the mother as well. It has been seen breastfeeding protects the mother against osteoporosis (a disease seen after menopause that leaves the bones brittle and easily broken).
Breastfeeding also helps to protect the mother from developing breast, uterine and ovarian cancers.
The Baby-Friendly Initiative is an international attempt to improve infant health and reduce diseases and death among infants. It includes steps:-
To support all mothers and babies
To increase the number of women who begin breastfeeding
To increase the number of women who offer only breast milk to their baby in the first 6 months of the bay’s life
To increase the duration and length of time that women breastfeed
To increase awareness of how’s and why’s related to breastfeeding.
Reviewed by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)