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Breastfeeding: Why is it so vital for babies and their mothers?

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What is breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding is the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the healthcare system and society at large.

Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by WHO as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth.

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Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods for up to two years of age or beyond.

What are the benefits of breastfeeding?

You may be familiar with the old adage, “breast is best”. Breastfeeding has certain advantages to nursing your baby. Here is a list of some of the ways breastfeeding can benefit you and your child:

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Advantage 1 – Immunological benefits

Studies have shown that babies who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives are less likely to develop ear and respiratory problems. Breastfed babies also have a lower incidence of gastrointestinal issues. The reason for this is that breast milk provides babies with key antibodies that help protect them from infection and disease.

Advantage 2 – Protection against allergies

Research suggests that the fatty acids found in breast milk may help prevent infants from developing food or respiratory allergies. Certain studies also suggest that babies who were breastfed were less likely to develop asthma and eczema.

Advantage 3 – Brain development

There is a connection between breastfeeding and higher IQs. Studies show that babies who were breastfed six months or longer had an advantage over formula-fed infants.

Advantage 4 – Prevent childhood obesity

Because breastfed infants are fed on demand, they are taught to stop eating when they are full. So, babies who are breastfed are less likely to suffer from childhood obesity and less likely to become obese adults.

Studies also suggest that food preferences may be passed on during nursing. Since a breastfeeding mother must consume a nutrient-rich diet, breastfed infants are exposed to healthy foods early on in life.

Advantage 5 – Breastfeeding and pre-pregnancy weight

Breastfeeding can help you get back to your pre-pregnancy weight more quickly. Your body needs a lot of energy to produce breast milk. So, you can burn a lot of calories just by feeding your little one.

Advantage 6 – Bonding

Breastfeeding offers you a unique way to bond with your little baby. In fact, studies have shown that an infant’s suckling can actually release the hormone oxytocin that increases maternal affection and helps mothers build relationships with their newborns.

Benefits of breastfeeding for mum

Breastfeeding is a wonderful gift for you as well as your baby. Many mothers feel fulfillment and joy from the physical and emotional communion they experience with their child while nursing.

These feelings are augmented by the release of hormones which produce a peaceful, nurturing sensation that allow you to relax and focus on your child, and promote a strong sense of love and attachment between the two of you. These pleasant feelings may be one of the reasons so many women who have breastfed their first child choose to breastfeed the children who follow.

Health benefits

Breastfeeding provides health benefits for mothers beyond emotional satisfaction. Mothers who breastfeed recover from childbirth more quickly and easily. One hormone released during breastfeeding acts to return the womb to its regular size more quickly and can reduce postpartum bleeding. Studies show that women who have breastfed experience reduced rates of breast and ovarian cancer later in life.

Some studies have found that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Finally, exclusive breastfeeding delays the return of the mother’s menstrual period, which can help extend the time between pregnancies.

Exclusive breastfeeding can provide a natural form of contraception which only protects for three months only and longer than she will need an additional family planning method.

Are there cases in which it is better not to breastfeed?

In certain situations, healthcare providers may advise a woman not to breastfeed:

o          A woman with certain health conditions, such as HIV or active tuberculosis, should not breastfeed because she risks giving the infection to her infant through her breast milk;

o          Retained medicines, including some mood stabilisers and migraine medicines, can also pass through the breast milk and cause harm to the infant;

o          Women with certain chronic illnesses may be advised not to breastfeed, or to take special steps to ensure their own health while breastfeeding. For example, women who have diabetes may need to eat slightly more food while they breastfeed, to prevent their blood sugar levels from dropping;

o          Women who have had breast surgery in the past may face some difficulties in breastfeeding.

If a mother stops breastfeeding before the child is a year old, then she should feed her infant iron-fortified, commercially available formula. Healthcare providers advise women not to give their infants cow milk until the child is at least a year old.

If you have any health conditions, or you are taking any medications or over-the-counter supplements, you should discuss breastfeeding with your healthcare provider.

How long after birth you should start breastfeeding your baby?

It’s best to start breastfeeding your baby within an hour of birth. The sooner, the better. Early initiation of breastfeeding protects your baby from life-threatening infections such as diarrhoea, pneumonia and meningitis.

How many times do I need to breastfeed my baby in a day?

Depending upon your baby’s demand, you can feed your baby 8 to 12 times a day. Feed your baby when she or he gives you signs that they are hungry.

These are called hunger cues and may include opening the mouth and turning the head from side to side, sticking the tongue in and out, suckling on fingers and fists or crying.

What is exclusive breastfeeding? Why is it important?

Exclusive breastfeeding is feeding your baby only breast milk, without any other foods or drinks except vitamins, mineral supplements or prescribed medicines.

Health professionals everywhere recommend exclusively breastfeeding your baby for the first six months of life to achieve best growth, development and health. Exclusive breastfeeding significantly reduces ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and diarrhoea in babies and helps quicker recovery during illness. The mortality risk is also significantly lower in infants exclusively breastfed compared to those partially or not breastfed at all.

Why should you choose breastfeeding over formula milk?

Breast milk contains an adequate amount of nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, healthy fat, and calcium in comparison to formula milk. The nutrients are better absorbed and used by your baby to grow and develop.

Unlike formula milk, breast milk is rich in antibodies to help boost your baby’s immunity. This is the reason breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from severe respiratory and gastrointestinal infections which require hospital admission. Breastfeeding also helps to prevent allergy, eczema, obesity, and hypertension.

In addition, breastfeeding is convenient. You can breastfeed your baby anywhere when needed. With formula milk, you need sterilised feeding bottles, water, utensils and formula milk powder to prepare the milk.

Lastly, from an economic point of view, breastfeeding costs nothing, but the returns are immense in terms of good health and the growth of your baby. Formula milk is not universally affordable and lacks many of the nutrients found in breast milk.

Breastfeeding reduces your disease risk

Breastfeeding seems to provide you with long-term protection against cancer and several diseases.

The total time a woman spends breastfeeding is linked with a reduced risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

Women who breastfeed have a lower risk for: high blood pressure, arthritis, high blood fats, heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes.

For further information you can contact: Ministry of Health, Infant Department, WHO and Unicef websites, or email Dr Azadeh on [email protected] or send text messages to Dr Azadeh on WhatsApp number 002207774469.

The author, Dr Hassan Azadeh, MD, is a senior lecturer at the University of The Gambia and clinical director at Medicare Health Services.

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