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What's So Great About Breast Milk?

October 12, 2021

Throughout your pregnancy, your body adapts to provide for your growing baby, and this remarkable process doesn’t end at birth. Through the production of breast milk, you can continue to protect and nurture your baby long after birth. It delivers a lifetime of health benefits to both baby and mother. 

Breastfeeding’s Triumphant Return 

For decades, breastfeeding was the only option for newborn nutrition. But in the mid-20th century, the invention of formula created a choice that was quickly touted as a healthy and convenient option. 

But in 1984, the Surgeon General's Workshop on Breastfeeding, along with efforts by breastfeeding organizations such as La Leche League International, renewed focus on researching the benefits of breast milk. This data re-established breast milk as the preferred choice. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding for about the first six months and then gradually adding solid foods while continuing breastfeeding for at least the first year.  

How Breast Milk Benefits Your Baby 

Breast milk is uniquely tailored to meet the health needs of your growing baby, even automatically adjusting its makeup in response to feedback received from your baby's saliva. Colostrum, the thick, golden-colored milk produced the first several days after birth, delivers antibodies that build your baby’s immune system, coats their stomach and intestines to ward off infection (especially important with premature infants), and helps regulate their digestion. 

As your baby grows, your breast milk’s nutrient content shifts to support proper levels of protein, fat, sugar, water and minerals. It even identifies infections in your baby and delivers specific immunoglobulins to aid in healing. 

Long-term health benefits of breastfed infants include decreased instances of:

●      Asthma

●      Obesity

●      Type 1 diabetes

●      Severe lower respiratory disease

●      Ear infections

●      Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

●      Gastrointestinal infections

●      Diarrhea, and vomiting

Breastfeeding Is Great for You, Too 

Breastfeeding extends important health advantages to mothers as well. The nursing process produces oxytocin, a hormone shown to help reduce stress and strengthen emotional bonds with your baby. 

Breastfeeding also stimulates the uterus to contract and return to normal size. And it helps you lose weight, burning an additional 500 calories a day. Studies have shown some long-term health benefits to the mother may include reduction in risk of: 

● Type 2 diabetes

● Certain types of breast cancer

● Ovarian cancer

● Bone density loss

Breastfeeding a Challenge? Consider This

There are instances when breastfeeding may not be an option, ranging from milk-production challenges to health issues for mother or child. In these cases, work with your OB-GYN or a board-certified lactation consultant to determine a solution. Remember, even a tiny amount of breast milk delivers important immune-building antibodies to your infant. Options might include:

● Pumping or hand-expressing milk — Hand expression is helpful in the early days of breastfeeding. It can stimulate milk production if your baby is not latching well and can help if you develop a clogged duct, mastitis or engorgement. Pumping and hand-expressing also encourage continued production and can provide supplemental milk supplies.

● Milk banks — Primarily used by hospitals for preterm infants, milk banks provide infants pasteurized breast milk from other lactating mothers.

● Formula — If you can’t or don’t want to breastfeed, formula also gives your baby the nutrition they need. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates commercial infant formulas to make sure they meet minimum nutritional and safety requirements. The FDA and the American Academy of Pediatrics warn against making your own infant formula.

If you have questions about breastfeeding, ask your OB-GYN, who can direct you to speak to an international board-certified lactation consultant for a consultation before you give birth.

Once your baby arrives, a lactation consultant can help you figure out what breastfeeding plan works best for you and your baby, how to use a breast pump or hand-express milk, and much more.

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