When it comes to good food for newborns, there’s nothing like mother’s milk, health experts agree.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that breast milk is the best nutritional source for most babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends babies be exclusively breastfed for their first six months, and even after solid foods are introduced until they reach the age of one year, or when mom and baby decide to move on. Breastfeeding also has benefits for the mother.
The Healthy People 2020 goal to increase the proportion of infants who were ever breastfed had a target goal of 81.9 percent. As of 2018 data, the United States has exceeded the goal at 84.1 percent. The US has high initiation rates of breastfeeding, but most women don’t breastfeed for the entire first year. Although most American infants are exclusively breastfed after birth, only one in four are exclusively breastfed by six months of age, according to the CDC’s 2018 Breastfeeding Report Card.
The percentage of breastfeeding mothers has risen in the past few years, says Meghan Gazarek, an RN and lactation consultant at Wood County Hospital and Mercy Health St. – Vincent Medical Center. “Hospitals and physicians have become better at communicating the benefits of breastfeeding and more support groups are available,” she says. “There’s a lot more evidence for people to see to be educated and informed so they can make the best decision for their baby.”
Breastfeeding isn’t for everyone; mothers should consult support groups or a lactation consultant when weighing whether to breastfeed.
“There are several benefits to both the mom and the baby,” Gazarek says. Breastfed babies, studies have shown, have a lower risk of chronic diseases such as asthma, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, some cancers, cardiovascular problems, and obesity. “The AAP has said breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] by one-third,” she adds. Because breast milk is more optimal than formula, she says, it’s easier for babies to digest, which leads to fewer bouts of diarrhea or constipation and lowers the chance of infections and illnesses.
Breastfeeding also improves babies’ cognitive development and is the beginning of a strong emotional bond with the mother—and the mother with the baby. Other benefits to the mother include reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer, loss of weight gained during pregnancy, and—possibly most important—a reduction in the likelihood of post-partum depression.
Gazarek says that there appears to be a rise in breastfeeding during the COVID-19 restrictions. She credits this to mothers who want to pass their antibodies to their babies through breast milk, who may be worried about access to formula during the shutdowns and a run on food supplies, and who may be reluctant to go out in public out of concern over catching the virus.
While the breastfeeding percentage is greater than the CDC’s earlier projection and more mothers are embracing breastfeeding during the pandemic, Gazarek says “Our society can do a lot more than it’s doing about the acceptance of breastfeeding. There are cultural barriers, lack of family support, unsupportive work policies, and lack of parental leave. Some mothers still worry about what some people think or say about breastfeeding in public. In the US, breasts are seen as sexual, not as a way to sustain life. There is that stigma still.” She adds that as a society we’re doing better, but some mothers feel that the sense of disapproval is still there.
The number of breastfeeding mothers begins to drop off after three months because many women have to return to work after giving birth, she says. “The nursing relationship is difficult because moms don’t have enough time or the workplace doesn’t have a place for the mom to pump breast milk,” Gazarek says. She adds that there are laws that protect nursing mothers in the workplace, “but maybe some mothers don’t feel comfortable advocating for themselves as they should.”
There is a wider benefit to breastfeeding. “It’s a money-saver for the parents,” Gazarek says. “Breast milk is free, there are fewer doctor’s visits, parents miss less work, fewer medications are needed, and there are fewer infections and fewer hospitalizations—this benefits the public health system. When you look at the long-term benefits, such as fewer instances of chronic diseases, this benefits public health as well.”
And there is one more: “Breastfeeding can be very empowering for women,” she says, “because they see that they can sustain their child’s life. Breast milk is the perfect food for your baby with just the right amount of nutrients, and it changes to meet your baby’s needs so he or she gets exactly what they need at the right time.”
Dennis Bova is a freelance writer, editor, and marketer