Breastfeeding is the most natural way to provide young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. With the correct information and support from family and health care professionals, most mothers can breastfeed their child. How long for largely comes down to personal choice.
Australia’s dietary guidelines recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life, and continued breastfeeding once solid food is introduced. Unfortunately, statistics show that in Australia just 15% of babies are breastfed to the recommended six months.
Breastfeeding has a huge range of benefits that not only support healthy development but make life easier for mum too.
What’s so special about breast milk?
Liquid Gold: Colostrum (known as liquid gold) is the thick yellow milk you make during pregnancy and straight after giving birth. Colostrum is hugely rich in nutrients and antibodies designed to protect your baby now they are out in the big wide world. Babies receive just a small amount of colostrum with each feed, but it is enough to give them the best start to life.
Mature milk: Between three and five days after birth, your milk will change into ‘mature’ milk, which has just the right amount of fat, sugar, water and protein to help your baby grow. The cells, hormones and antibodies in breast milk help protect your baby from illness, and even the best formula product in the world can’t match this chemical makeup of goodness.
What are the benefits of breast milk for your baby?
Protection against illness - Numerous studies have shown that stomach viruses, lower respiratory problems, ear infections and meningitis are far less common in infants who are breastfed. Should a breastfed baby contract one of these illnesses, the symptoms are often much less severe than those suffered by a formula fed baby.
Protection against death - It is estimated that a breastfed child has 20 percent less risk of dying between the ages of 28 days and one year, compared with a non-breastfed baby. Exclusive breastfeeding at one month of age cuts the risk of SIDS in half.
According to the World Health Organisation, if every child was breastfed within an hour of birth, given only breast milk for their first six months of life and continued breastfeeding to the age of two years, an estimated 800,000 child lives could be saved every year.
Protection throughout childhood - Protection against illness lasts way beyond the breastfeeding stage, and studies have shown that breastfeeding can reduce a child’s risk of developing certain childhood cancers, high cholesterol, inflammatory bowel disease, high blood pressure, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Protection against allergies - Babies who are fed a formula based on cow’s milk or soy run a much higher risk of suffering allergic reactions once food is introduced.
Breast milk has the ability to protect against disease and allergy due to a substance called secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA). This substance guards against the invasion of germs by forming a protective layer on the mucous membranes in your baby’s intestines, nose and throat. When exposed to bacteria, your baby’s body responds to the pathogens by creating secretory IgA that’s specific to the illness trying to break in.
Boosts intelligence - There is a strong link between breastfeeding and cognitive development, and researchers have suggested that the longer a child is breastfed, the higher their IQ scores will be. Another study concludes that “longer duration of breastfeeding and greater exclusivity of breastfeeding are associated with better receptive language at age 3 years, and with higher verbal and non-verbal IQ at age 7 years.”
Experts believe this link is likely down to the bonding experience shared between mother and child, as well as the fatty acids found in breast milk.
Helps control weight - Studies have shown that a breastfed child is less likely to become obese as a teen or adult. The reason for this may be that a breastfed child learns to eat only until their hunger is satisfied, setting a good eating pattern for later in life. Breast milk also contains less insulin (which creates fat) and keeps weight down in the early stages of life. It is said that rapid weight gain as an infant can be linked to later obesity.
Easy to digest - For most babies, breast milk is easier to digest than formula. Babies often need time for their stomach to adjust to the proteins found in cow’s milk, and this can cause some discomfort.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding for Mum?
Protection against stress and postpartum depression - Women who don’t breastfeed or who stop breastfeeding early have a higher risk of developing postpartum depression. When you nurse a child, a hormone known as oxytocin is released, which nurtures the feeling of relaxation and calm.
Protection against cancer - The longer a woman breastfeeds, the more protection against breast and ovarian cancer they gain. Those who breastfeed for more than one year can significantly reduce their risk of developing breast cancer. It is believed that structural changes within the breasts may result in this protection, and that the oestrogen suppression associated with breastfeeding may affect the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer.
Ease - While breastfeeding takes some effort at first, once you and your baby have the hang of it, it’s the easiest thing in the world. Breastfeeding your baby means flexibility, allowing you to feed wherever you are without the need of sterilised bottles. There is no measuring of formula and you can satisfy your baby’s hunger in an instant.
Affordability - You can’t get more affordable than free, and that’s exactly what breast milk is - free! Formula and feeding supplies can cost well over $1,500 each year, and the health benefits of breast milk mean lower health costs and less days off work.
Bonding - Physical contact is both important for your baby and important for yourself as a mother. Breastfeeding allows you to take some quiet time and relax skin-to-skin with your child. As you feed, oxytocin is released, helping to calm and soothe your body and mind, while helping to contract your uterus.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding for society?
If 90% of families breastfed exclusively for six months, the number of infant deaths would be dramatically reduced. Medical costs associated with sick children are a huge burden on state funding, and breastfeeding is a good way to control the number of hospital visits. For employers, large costs can be saved with a more productive workforce. If a mother is continually home with a sick child, the workforce is affected.
Environmentally, breastfeeding also has its benefits. Breastfeeding means less waste of plastic and tin produced by formula cans and bottles.
Remember that any amount of breastfeeding is beneficial, so whether you breastfeed for the recommended six months and longer or choose to stop after one month, the important thing is to try your best. Breastfeeding can be tough at first, but persevere and the benefits are colossal.