Breastfeeding a baby exclusively for the first 6 months (i.e. giving only breast milk to the baby), and then continued breastfeeding in addition to appropriate solid foods until 12 months and beyond is called ‘Exclusive Breast Feeding’ and has health benefits for both the mother and child. The first few drops of milk that are secreted just after the delivery is called colostrum and it is the thick first milk that is made during pregnancy and just after birth. This milk is very rich in nutrients and includes antibodies which fight against infections and strengthens the immune system of your baby. Colostrum also helps the new-born’s digestive system to grow and function. The composition of the milk changes as the baby grows. Colostrum changes into mature milk by the third to fifth day after birth. This mature milk has just the right amount of fat, sugar, water, and protein to help the baby continue to grow. It looks thinner than colostrum, but it has the nutrients and antibodies the baby needs for healthy growth.
Benefits to the baby
Research shows that breastfed infants have fewer illnesses such as ear and diarrheal infections. Neither the nutrients found in breast milk nor the special benefits these nutrients provide can be duplicated by any supplement. Breast milk is always fresh, perfectly clean, just the right temperature, instantly available.
- Breastfed pre-term babies tend to have a higher IQ than their formula-fed peers.
- Breastfeeding offers emotional security to the baby because the skin-to-skin contact between the mother and the baby.
- The activity of sucking at the breast while breastfeeding enhances the baby's development of oral muscles and facial bones.
- Breastfed babies are less likely to develop respiratory infections, childhood diabetes and childhood lymphoma.
- Babies who are breastfed:
- Have fewer learning disabilities
- Have lesser incidence of allergies
- Are 10 times less likely to be admitted to the hospital during the first year.
- Are one-third less likely to die of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
- Are four times less likely to contract the infections that cause meningitis.
Benefits to the mother
Breast-feeding is not only good for the babies; it has a lot of advantages for the mothers as well.
- There are no bottles to sterilize and no formula to buy, measure and mix.
- It may be easier for a nursing mother to lose weight after pregnancy. Lactation stimulates the uterus to contract back to its original size.
- Nursing supresses ovulation and hence can act as nature's contraceptive--although not a very reliable one.
- The milk-producing hormone, prolactin, has a relaxing effect on the mother and stimulates maternal instincts.
- Women who breastfeed reduce their chances of pre-menopausal breast cancer, cervical cancer and osteoporosis.
When to Consider Alternate Feeding
There are some medical reasons for mother to not opt for breastfeeding:
- A few viruses, including HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and illnesses such as herpes, hepatitis, and beta streptococcus infections can pass through breast milk. Women who are HIV positive or have other such illnesses should consult their healthcare provider before choosing to breastfeed.
- Women who have had breast cancer can usually breast-feed from the unaffected breast. There is some concern that the hormones produced during pregnancy and lactation may trigger a recurrence of cancer, but so far, this has not been proven.
- If a mother is on radioactive therapy for cancer, on ergot preparations for migraine, on anticancer drugs, or Lithium, she may have to discontinue breastfeeding after consulting her healthcare provider.
Breastfeeding and Working Mothers
If you must resume working before your child is six months old, then follow these guidelines:
- Feed your baby before you leave for work and frequently after you return home.
- Before you leave for work, empty both your breasts manually, and store the milk in a sterile container. This milk can be stored at room temperature for four to six hours ordinarily. If refrigerated, expressed breastmilk can be stored for 24 hours. The milk can be reheated before feeding by keeping the container in another (larger) container containing warm water.
- While at work, empty your breasts in the ladies room whenever you have a feeling of fullness. This is important to maintain the milk supply. You can store and carry this milk home to feed your baby later.
- Avoid using a bottle to feed your baby at any stage. This can confuse the child because the mechanism of getting milk from the breast is different than that from a bottle. A confused baby may refuse the breast.
If your baby is more than four months old, consult your paediatrician to start appropriate weaning foods.