A SCOTTISH study this summer raised the question of “uncertain” evidence for the health benefits of breast-feeding infants.
As a lactation consultant at Swedish Medical Center, where thousands of babies are born every year, I can attest to the abundant evidence supporting the value of breast-feeding. I also believe women who choose to breast-feed deserve support.
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages mothers to breast-feed their babies for the first 12 months of life, and to introduce complementary foods after the first six months. Research is clear that early breast milk, colostrum, is rich in nutrients and antibodies, giving the baby’s health an immediate boost. The fat, sugar, water and protein in mature milk, which arrives after three to five days, can provide all the nutrients and antibodies a baby needs to continue to grow.
Evidence also shows that breast milk is easier to digest than cow’s milk, and helps fight diseases, such as lower respiratory infections, asthma, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
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Babies receive these benefits whether they feed from the breast or from a bottle filled with expressed breast milk. Because the guidelines do not distinguish between breast-milk feeding and direct breast-feeding, it is not necessary for a mother to stay home in order to exclusively breast-feed for six months.
As mothers, we make health-care decisions for our children. Breast-feed? Vaccinate? Sleep on their backs? Take them for well-baby checks? Just because something may be less convenient or temporarily time consuming, does not lessen its value.
Breast-feeding can be rewarding and worthwhile. It also can be challenging, especially for mothers who work in demanding, structured or non-supportive environments. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women comprise nearly half of our country’s workforce.
While many employers have made great strides in supporting new mothers, there is still a long way to go. Women who choose to breast-feed need access to educational resources, trained lactation consultants, and clean, non-bathroom locations at their places of work where they can express and refrigerate their breast milk.
From a business perspective, these efforts build loyalty by endorsing the value of women employees. From a purely practical perspective, they help decrease absenteeism due to mothers missing work to care for sick children.
The research from Scotland was a small, interview-type study.
Breast-feeding may not be the magic cure for all childhood illnesses, but research definitely supports it as a significant contributor to healthier children. While no woman should be judged for her personal decisions, we have a responsibility to provide complete and accurate information, rather than anecdotes, to empower women to make decisions that are best for them, their babies and their families.
To learn more about the benefits of breast-feeding and for help making your personal decision, talk with your provider, or go to www.womenshealth.gov/breastfeeding or www.bestforbabes.org. If you have chosen to breast-feed and need help overcoming some initial challenges, contact a lactation consultant or peer counselor through your local Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, La Leche League International or the International Lactation Consultant Association.
I am sensitive to the challenges of motherhood. Not least among those is the need for new mothers to balance many aspects of their lives.
I am also aware that the decision about breast-feeding is extremely personal. Women may make an informed decision not to breast-feed. Women who choose to breast-feed deserve support so they can be successful.
Emily Pease is a registered nurse and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant at Swedish Breast-feeding Center.