Dr. Monica Washington discusses the benefits and challenges of breastfeeding and shares her own experiences and resources
I distinctly remember the conversation. I was pregnant in my third trimester with my first child and I was at the kitchen table talking with my mom, who is also my best friend. She was helping me prepare for the arrival of my baby boy, and yet again we were discussing breastfeeding. “Just give him formula. He will be fine. You turned out ok, didn’t you?” I took a deep breath, as I always did before responding, and contemplated what to say this time around. “Yes mom, he will be fine. As long as he is happy and fed, that is most important. But perhaps I can explain a little more about why trying to breastfeed would be beneficial if successful.”
I imagine for some women, the above conversation is not uncommon.
What Are The Benefits of Breastfeeding?
Multiple studies show that breastfeeding benefits both mother and baby. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly support mothers breastfeeding exclusively for at least six months, and then encourage them to combine breastfeeding while introducing iron-rich foods for at least the first year of life.
Benefits for Babies
Breast milk has just the right amount of fat, sugar, water, protein and minerals that a baby needs, and it changes over time as the needs of the baby change. Breast milk also contains antibodies that provide babies with immunity against many infections. That’s a large reason why breastfed infants tend to have fewer childhood illnesses and fewer visits to the pediatrician. They also tend to have a lower incidence of obesity, asthma, eczema, diabetes, ear infections, respiratory infections, gastrointestinal infections, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Breastfed babies also get early exposure to a variety of tastes indirectly, which helps prevent them from being picky eaters and sets them up to enjoy healthier and more nutritious diets as they grow.
In addition, breastfed babies get to see their mamas up close and personal! Infants are born nearsighted, and the distance they can see is exactly the distance from their mother’s breast to her face. This view of mom while feeding, along with skin-to-skin contact, are perfect for bonding!
Benefits for Moms
Breastfeeding also has substantial benefits for mothers. It decreases postpartum blood loss and helps with postpartum weight loss. Did you know that moms who breastfeed can burn up to 500 additional calories per day? Research has also shown that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer, and that it can possibly lower the rates of diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and cardiovascular disease later in life.
Start the Conversation Early and Seek Support
It is important to start conversations about feeding plans for your baby early on during prenatal care, ideally in the first trimester. At that time, women should feel comfortable to express their desires, but also be open about potential concerns and obstacles that they feel they may face once the baby is born. Then prior to delivery, it is recommended that mothers-to-be take a prenatal lactation class and have an ongoing conversation with their obstetrical provider about breastfeeding.
Include Your Partner
Mothers should include their partner in the conversation and work towards a feeding plan together. Remember, there are many ways a partner can support a breastfeeding mom. My husband was a driving force for my breastfeeding success. We worked towards a shared goal together. Although he could not actually feed the baby at the breast, he made sure I stayed hydrated, kept me on schedule, cleaned bottles and pump parts, packed my work bag each day, made baby bottles, and fed the baby with bottles.
Community Support and Resources
It’s important to educate mothers on the benefits of breastfeeding and help them find support should they make that choice. The barriers to breastfeeding are multifactorial and date back to a complex history related to socioeconomic status, education, misperceptions, social norms, and support systems. Some mothers-to-be may not consider breastfeeding because it can be difficult to find support when it is less common in their communities. The lower rate of initiation of breastfeeding is affected by cultural and socioeconomic differences that range from home to the workplace. That’s why it’s important to build awareness within our communities of how breastfeeding can make a difference in giving babies a healthy start.
There are many community resources that mothers can turn to for education and support for breastfeeding. Beyond their women’s healthcare provider, women can seek out doulas (trained professionals who provide emotional, physical, and educational support for mothers before, during and/or after childbirth), lactation consultants (specialists trained to help new moms overcome difficulties and reach their breastfeeding goals), home visit providers, as well as phone and on-line support options. Mothers should also reach out to family, friends, and support groups in the community to build a strong foundation of support for the journey they are about to embark upon.
A Mother’s Right to Breastfeed (and to Obtain a Free Breast Pump!)
Women must also understand their right to breastfeed in public and at work. Most states have laws allowing women to breastfeed in public. The Affordable Care Act contained an amendment in 2010 that calls for employers to provide reasonable break times and a private place (not a bathroom) for breastfeeding mothers to express milk for the first year of an infant’s life. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, women can also order a free breast pump, covered by most insurance providers.
Overcoming Common Breastfeeding Issues
Breastfeeding is not easy, and there are many deterrents that can lead to discontinuation. However, by being proactive and knowing ahead of time where to turn for help, many women will find they can continue providing nutrition and so much more for their child. Here are some common issues and ways to find support:
Issues with lactation supply and latch
Talk to your provider or a lactation consultant about ways to increase milk supply and improve baby’s latch. Continue to work with them as needed and do not be afraid to use additional supplies such as a nipple shield or nipple everter.
Concerns about medications and vaccinations that are safe while breastfeeding
Much research has gone into determining what medications and vaccinations are compatible with breastfeeding. Most times, a mother can continue a recommended treatment and still feed her child.
Infant struggling with gaining weight and maintaining nutrition
Speak to the pediatrician about increasing feedings or using supplementation and together determine when is the right time to make adjustments to the baby’s feeding schedule.
Feelings of depression or of being overwhelmed
Breastfeeding success can decrease rates of postpartum depression, yet on the other hand, breastfeeding struggles can increase those rates. Do not be afraid to ask for help from your provider, a lactation specialist, or friends who have been through it. Acknowledge the feelings and know that help and resources are abundant.
Widening the circle of breastfeeding education and support
Breastfeeding is a labor of love, but it is one of the most rewarding gifts a mother can provide to her child. Find a “tribe” that best supports the goals you have set and lean on them as you begin your journey. Also remember, each child is different. Give yourself grace to change your plans and expectations to meet the challenges you face each time around. Then, as you contemplate your own experiences with the benefits and challenges of breastfeeding, you can share what you’ve learned, resources and support with family, friends or members of your community who may not even realize they need them.
As for my story: a few years later, one night as my toddler boys ran around the house, I sat at the table with my mother. She stopped and put her fork down and looked over at me. She simply smiled and said “I’m so proud of you, Monica. I never should have questioned you. Times change, and we should evolve also. Just last week I was telling someone about breastfeeding and its benefits…”