Every breastfeeding week, supported by WHO, UNICEF and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, we aim to empower and support families to breast feed infants for at least the first six months of life. Slogans like ‘breast is best’ has for many years, extolled the virtues of breastfeeding for babies but what exactly are those advantages and how can we best support families and mothers to breast feed?
How breastfeeding works
During pregnancy, hormonal changes cause the milk glands of the breast to develop and evolve in preparation for feeding the new baby. In later pregnancy, small amounts of milk and a substance called colostrum is already excreted in preparation. After delivery, milk production really ramps up. In order to breastfeed, there are a number of physical changes (such as suckling) and hormonal signals from prolactin or oxytocin.
What are the advantages of breastfeeding for children?
The WHO states that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months could save over 800,00 lives, the majority children. Breastfeeding has been shown to improve gut development and function, prevention of infectious diseases including passing along antibodies while the baby isn’t immunised, reduced ear infection, respiratory infection and urinary tract infections. Over the longer term, some research has demonstrated benefits for a number of chronic diseases including obesity, while other disease prevention such as for allergies or heart disease is a little unclear.
What are the advantages of breastfeeding for mothers?
For the mum, there are some important advantages of breastfeeding including improved bonding with other improvements on the uterus contracting down after birth which might help with a more rapid recovery after birth. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancer in mum and may reduce the risk of heart disease down the track.
There’s always lots of talk about weight loss and breastfeeding – while it may help with post-baby weight loss, generally it’s not so significant. Plus, that advice is unhelpful in feeding into the immense pressure we place on mums to look a certain way after birth.
It’s also important to note there are important economic effects – formula costs around $1000 per year which can be a big cost to a family. Estimates also show that the reduction in illness associated with breast feeding can reduce health system costs which benefits us all.
How do we all support breastfeeding?
Some important ways we can support breastfeeding include:
• Employers having good maternity leave policy
• Workplaces enabling breastfeeding for mothers who have returned to work through enabling breaks or private rooms to breastfeed
• Make sure we have laws and procedures to support breastfeeding in public
• Provide education to parents from midwives, health providers and lactation consultants to help mums breastfeed
For more information on breastfeeding, talk to your GP or your midwife or visit the Australian Breastfeeding Association.