Breastfeeding – The gold standard

More and more recent research and systematic reviews are reinforcing the conclusion that breast feeding and human milk are the reference gold standards for infant feeding and nutrition. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, and breastfeeding for upto 2 years as long as it is mutually beneficial to mother and baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reaffirms this recommendation. Recently, after 6 years of putting out their last statement on breastfeeding, the AAP published their comprehensive review and policy statement on breastfeeding on Feb 27, 2012.

This statement reinforces what we have known for a long time .. that breastfeeding confers unique nutritional and non-nutritional benefits to infant and mother in terms of optimizing infant, child and adult health, as well as child growth and development. Here are some amazing numbers:

1) The risk of hospitalization for lower respiratory tract infections in the first year is reduced 72% if infants breastfeed exclusively for more than 4 months.

2) Any breastfeeding is associated with 64% reduction in gastrointestinal tract infections, and the protective effects last for 2 months after stopping breastfeeding.

3) In the 42 developing countries in which 90% of the world’s childhood deaths occur, exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months and weaning after 1 year, is the most effective intervention, with the potential of preventing more than 1 million deaths per year! Pretty powerful stuff!

4) 15 – 30% reduction in adolescent and adult obesity rates.

5) 40% reduction in incidence of Type II Diabetes Mellitus, possibly reflecting the long term positive effect of breastfeeding on feeding self-regulation and weight control.

6) Both short-term and long-term health benefits accrue to mothers who breastfeed. Such mothers have decreased postpartum blood loss and more rapid involution of the uterus. Continued breastfeeding for more than 6 months also gives protective effects to the mother against high blood pressure, hyperlipidemia, cardio-vascular disease and diabetes.

For those mothers who breastfed more than 12 months, breast cancer and ovarian cancer rates dropped by 28%. Thus, as more and more research comes out, it is clear we should not be talking about the benefits of breastfeeding – we should be addressing the harms of not breastfeeding! So, what can you do to ensure that you are able to breastfeed?

1) Find care providers and hospitals that are mother-baby friendly.

2) Here are the 10 steps to successful breastfeeding as written by UNICEF. Does your hospital or caregiver follow them? Become informed. The first minutes and hours post-birth is where breastfeeding should be first encouraged and supported. At Healthy Mother Natural Birthing Center, we follow the 10 steps routinely and passionately. We also have a Healthy Mother Breastfeeding Support Network to help mothers gain confidence and sustain their breastfeeding efforts. It is also clear that in most current hospitals, there is a need to reorganize medical and nursing activities to support this gold standard of breastfeeding. Helping the mother to breastfeed her infant within the first hour of life (even after a C-Section) should not be just a goal, but should be practiced rigorously. Infant breastfeeding should not be considered a lifestyle choice, but a basic public health issue, and each one of us – care-providers, hospitals, mothers, and the community at large – should participate in supporting the new mother-infant dyad in achieving this gold standard.