This month is National Breastfeeding Month. Breastfeeding is the natural way for mothers all around the world to provide babies with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and optimal development. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months of age followed by continued breastfeeding along with appropriate foods up to 2 years of age and beyond.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months and then continued breastfeeding along with complementary foods until 12 months or older. Therefore, the recommendation to breastfeed babies is clear.
The AAP also further recommends that healthy infants should be placed and remain in direct skin-to-skin contact with their mothers immediately after delivery until the first feeding is accomplished. During the first weeks of life, newborns should then be offered the breast whenever showing signs of hunger and should be encouraged to have around 8-12 feedings every 24 hours.
Signs that a baby is getting adequate milk after the first few days of life include 4-8 wet diapers and 3-4 loose, seedy stools every day. Early follow-up with a healthcare provider during the baby’s first week of life can help assess for appropriate growth and address any breastfeeding difficulties.
There are many benefits from breastfeeding. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), babies who breastfeed have a lower risk of:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Gastrointestinal diseases
- Ear, respiratory and urinary tract infections
- Necrotizing enterocolitis for preterm infants
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding. The CDC states that mothers who breastfeed their babies have a lower risk of:
- Postpartum bleeding
- Breast and ovarian cancers
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
In addition to health benefits, breastfeeding comes with practical benefits. Baby formula can cost anywhere from $4-$10 per day, which averages to $1300 in just 6 months. Breastfeeding is also convenient, as no supplies or preparation are necessary for a feeding.
Despite the obvious benefits to babies and mothers, by the age of 6 months, only 1 in 4 American infants is exclusively breastfed as recommended. Younger mothers (20-29 years old) are less likely to have ever breastfeed than mothers aged 30 years or older.
In addition, in the United States, black infants are 21% less likely to have ever been breastfed than white and Hispanic infants.
Nearly 60% of American mothers do not breastfeed for as long as they intend to. As noted by the CDC, some barriers to breastfeeding include:
- Issues with lactation and latching
- Concerns with infant nutrition and weight
- Mother’s concern about taking medications while breastfeeding
- Unsupportive work policies and lack of parental leave
- Cultural norms and/or lack of family support
- Unsupportive hospital practices and policies
The AAP asserts that there are only 2 true contraindications to breastfeeding.
- The first one is infants with classic galactosemia, a genetic disorder that affects how the body processes a simple sugar called galactose, which is found in all dairy products.
- The second contraindication is mothers, in the US, who are infected by HIV. However, in developing countries, as long as mothers with HIV are receiving the recommended antiretroviral therapy, breastfeeding is still recommended as the risk of HIV transmission by breastmilk is outweighed by the lack of alternative resources and higher risks of malnutrition.
The benefits of breastfeeding are undeniable, which is why education and support in a variety of ways is paramount to breaking down barriers and improving the prevalence of breastfeeding. It is also important to remember, however, that every situation is unique and sometimes breastfeeding is not a feasible option for mothers and families. Encouraging and supporting families regardless is key to helping babies thrive.