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Breastfeeding: A Gift of Health for Baby and Mom

Childbirth

When you’re expecting a baby—especially if it’s your first—you probably feel like you have a million questions about this tiny human you’re bringing into the world. If you’re like many expectant moms, one of the biggest and most important questions you’ll face is how you’re going to feed your baby, and specifically the issue of breastfeeding.

For centuries, breastfeeding wasn’t even a question; it was the only option. It was only in the 1950s when baby formula came into widespread usage, giving mothers a viable alternative for feeding. As is often the case with trends, the traditional method of breastfeeding suddenly felt outdated, and formula-feeding was king for a few decades.

Research studies, however, have proven over and over again that the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh those of formula for the vast majority of mothers and their babies. Fortunately, both the medical community and new parents are once again embracing this very old, but very effective, feeding option.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that moms breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of their baby’s life. (That means no formula or other types of nutrition.) Furthermore, the AAP says that breastfeeding should continue through the first year of life, supplemented by solid food beginning at six months, and then as long as both baby and mom are comfortable doing so.

Breastfeeding for even this brief amount of time provides lifelong benefits for both your baby and you:

  • Proper nutrition. Breast milk contains a perfect balance of vitamins, proteins and fat—all the things your baby needs during his or her first weeks of life. The milk you produce immediately after giving birth, called colostrum (kuh-LAH-struhm), may look a bit strange, but it is exactly what your baby needs to kick-start his or her digestive system.

  • Disease prevention. Your breast milk is loaded with antibodies and other substances that help your baby grow immune to and fight off a wide array of diseases and conditions. Included among this list are asthma, allergies, ear infections, respiratory illnesses and diarrhea. According to the AAP, breastfeeding can help to prevent SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), and some studies have preliminarily concluded that breastfeeding may help lower the risk of diabetes, obesity and some cancers.

  • Proper physical and mental development. Babies who are breastfed tend to grow into a normal weight and avoid becoming overweight. In addition, breastfeeding appears to reduce the number of both doctor visits and hospitalizations among children. According to some studies, breastfeeding can help increase IQ scores as the child grows. Possibly one of the most significant and lasting benefits of breastfeeding is the bond you create with your child through the skin-to-skin contact and physical closeness you share.

Breastfeeding has benefits for you, too:

Recovery. When you breastfeed, your body releases a hormone called oxytocin (ahx-ee-TOE-suhn), which signals your uterus to contract and return to its normal size. This action may also reduce bleeding in your uterus. In addition, breastfeeding burns calories, which can help you shed baby weight.

Disease prevention. Women who breastfeed have lower rates of breast and ovarian cancers, and breastfeeding can reduce the risk of heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Economic benefits. Breast milk is free! It’s also available, 24/7, whenever your baby needs it. No rushed trips to the store to buy expensive formula.

While I am a big advocate of breastfeeding, I know there are circumstances—on the mother’s part or the baby’s—when breastfeeding isn’t the best option. That’s why it’s important to talk with your OB-GYN, pediatrician or family physician about breastfeeding and whether or not it’s a good option for you. Chances are, it is.

Many hospitals also offer breastfeeding information and support during your pregnancy, while you’re in the hospital and afterward. For instance, Simi Valley Hospital has a breastfeeding class and an ongoing, weekly breastfeeding support group that is free of charge.

There are also excellent resources online about breastfeeding, but be sure to stick with recognized professional organizations when doing Internet research. The American Academy of Family Physicians (aafp.org) has a large amount of information and resources regarding breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics (aap.org) and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (acog.org) are also great sites to visit to learn more about breastfeeding.

David Yamada, MD, is a board-certified family medicine physician with Adventist Health Physicians Network—Simi Valley Family Practice.