The Health Benefits of Breastfeeding
By Susan Chase
World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7, is celebrated in over 120 countries, making it a great outreach tool for the breastfeeding movement. The World Alliance of Breastfeeding Action promotes the event to bring awareness to the benefits of breastfeeding. The theme of this year’s campaign is “Breastfeeding and Family Foods: Loving and Healthy.” Goals are to:
- Emphasize the value of continuing to breastfeed children to 2 years of age and older
- Make known the risks and costs of giving other foods and drinks to breastfed babies before 6 months of age. This goal supports the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which is six months of exclusive breastfeeding
- Update information about other foods and drinks needed by older breastfed babies and young children older than 6 months
- Share ideas for making complementary feedings easier, healthier and a time for learning and love
AAP revised its breastfeeding policy in February 2005, noting that considerable advances have occurred in recent years in the scientific knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding, the mechanisms underlying these benefits, and in the clinical management of breastfeeding. The policy further summarizes the benefits of breastfeeding for the infant, the mother and the community.
Value of Breastfeeding
AAP urges that women feed their babies only breast milk for the first six months and continue breastfeeding with complementary foods for at least six months more. The health and nutritional benefits of following this recommendation are substantial, according to studies cited by AAP.
Exclusive breastfeeding has been shown to provide improved protection against many diseases and to increase the likelihood of continued breastfeeding for at least the first year of life, the AAP policy states. Exclusive breastfeeding is defined as an infant's consumption of human milk with no supplementation of any type (no water, no juice, no nonhuman milk, and no foods) except for vitamins, minerals and medications.
Breastfeeding protects against infective diseases such as bacterial meningitis, diarrhea and infections of the blood, lungs, ears, bowel and urinary tract.
Additionally, exclusive breastfeeding the first six months may reduce the risk of: Type 1 and type 2 diabetes, lymphoma and leukemia, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and health problems associated with being overweight and obese.
Risks of Introduction of Foods Other than Breastmilk
Early introduction of foods other than breastmilk has risks. In addition to AAP, all major medical organizations recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. The infant’s digestive and immune systems are still developing, so early introduction of other foods increases the baby’s risk of allergies, diarrhea, choking, disease from food-borne illnesses and high blood pressure during childhood and as an adult.
Reasons a breastfeeding mother might want to begin solid foods before six months include:
- Worries over milk supply
- Pressure from family or friends
- Belief that her child is more “advanced” and therefore ready for solids sooner
- Belief it will help her baby sleep through the night
If any of these issues or others are a concern, your health care professional and/or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) can give advice on infant care and development issues that affect the breastfeeding relationship. An IBCLC can also identify potential infant problems, refer to primary care providers and teach hand expression and/or use of breast pumps.
For names of local IBCLCs refer to the International Lactation Consultant Association Web site at www.ilca.org.
In a follow-up article next week, we can focus on the third and fourth goals of World Breastfeeding Week, which deal with complementary foods and drinks, and appropriate times at which to introduce these into babies’ diets.
Susan Chase, MS, RN, IBCLC, CD (DONA), ICCE, is a staff nurse on the Mother-Baby Unit at Mount Nittany Medical Center.