Not only is breast-feeding the ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants, evidence suggests it is also vital for the health of mothers. Numerous mothers get fulfilment and joy from the physical and emotional communion they experience with their babies during breast-feeding.
With this week (August 1 to 7) being World Breastfeeding Week, a lot of focus has been thrown into the benefits of breast-feeding, under the theme “Sustaining Breastfeeding Together”.
Health benefits for mom and baby
According to Lynn Shier, a midwife and lactation specialist at Life Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont, the first milk (colostrum) not only provides the baby with its first immunity that sets the baby’s gut for life, but it acts as a laxative, which enables the baby to excrete meconium, the dark green substance forming the first stool of the newborn.
Research has also shown that breast milk is beneficial in decreasing allergies, and breast-fed babies tend to have high IQ levels. Mothers benefit, too. Mothers who have successfully breast-fed their children have been shown to have greater self-esteem and tend to be more tuned to their childs’ needs.
Long-term breast-feeding also decreases a mother’s risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis, while in the short term it helps mothers lose the extra weight gained during pregnancy.
Rosalyn Allman, lactation consultant at Netcare Lane Hospital in Johannesburg, says another benefit is that the suckling action of breast-fed babies helps with the development of the jaw, the tongue and eaustachian tube (auditory tube), which reduces incidences of ear infections and helps with clear speech.
Candice Shier, a dietitian at Milk Matters, the Western Cape’s non-profit milk bank, says not only does breast milk help to mature and strengthen babies’ immune systems, but breast-fed babies are also at a lower risk of childhood cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
“Human milk is also lower in salt and protein, which makes it easier on the baby’s kidneys. There is also evidence to show that children who were breast-fed have improved facial-muscle development from suckling the breast.
“For mothers, there is a decrease in the risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancers. Breast-feeding also promotes emotional health for the mother and there is less risk of post-partum anxiety and depression.”
Is your baby getting enough milk?
Allman says the most crucial part of gauging whether the baby is getting enough breast milk is to monitor their weight gain and ensure it is aligned to the clinical growth chart.
“If (the) baby is not getting enough milk, he or she may often be discontented, too weak to cry, and may have little or no weight gain. The baby will also have dry nappies and will not suck well. If this is the case, you will need to seek professional medical help urgently, but this doesn’t mean that the mother needs to stop breast-feeding.”
Shier suggests that babies should feed frequently - about 8-10 times over a 24-hour period - and frequent stool-passing indicates they are getting enough milk.
“Babies lose up to 10% of their birth weight in the first few days and then need to regain that weight loss by roughly two weeks. Babies gain about 30g per day in the first three months.”
Common feeding problems
According to Shier, the most common feeding problems include poor latching, which could lead to sore and damaged nipples. But this can be corrected by lining up the baby’s nose with the nipples and getting the baby’s chin right into the breast with the head extended.
If breast engorgement is a problem, experts say this can be addressed by feeding the baby regularly - every 2-3 hours. Warm compressors can be used before feeding, and ice packs after feeding to assist with the swelling and comfort levels for the mom. If baby is still not feeding well, moms can express, or seek advice from a lactation specialist.
Teething can also pose problems as babies start biting, but Shier advises that this can be avoided by keeping the baby close to the breast and removing the nipple as the baby loses interest.
What is the role of fathers?
Allman says: “They can, for example, get involved at a practical level by winding the baby, and at an emotional level by acknowledging their partners’ commitment to breast-feeding.”
Shier says although the dad can’t do the actual breast-feeding, “he can provide a supportive role to both the mother and baby and take over some of the duties and bond with the baby during nappy changes and bathing”.
Can breast-feeding be used as a form of contraception?
While breast-feeding can be a reliable form of contraception if you are exclusively breast-feeding and your menstrual periods have not resumed, once babies start eating solids, this is no longer a reliable form of birth control.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) uses the Lactation Amenorrhea Method, which helps women who want to use breast-feeding for family planning. This method is 98% effective if the mother is not menstruating, is exclusively breast-feeding day and night, and the baby is younger than six months.
When should one stop breast- feeding?
Shier says babies should be weaned when they and the mothers are ready. The WHO recommends breast-feeding up to two years and beyond.
“Breast milk has higher immune properties, again, around this time just as the toddler is starting to move away from its mother and mix with other children.
“Certain cultures feed their babies for much longer than this, and it is perfectly appropriate to do so,” she says.
Allman also agrees. “The longer the baby feeds, the more beneficial it is for them. Factors such as going back to work, family, peer pressure, lack of help and support may all contribute to the mother’s decision to stop breast-feeding. Breast milk will go a long way to contribute to a child’s health. It makes sense for a mother to breast-feed as it offers many advantages.”