Is breast milk the best milk for your baby?

January 18, 2012

Tips for successful breastfeeding

If you're a mother-to-be, you have to make many decisions that affect your baby's health. One of the biggest is how to feed your baby after he or she is born. Should you breastfeed or use formula? Here is some of the latest information about breastfeeding. It can help you decide what's best for you and your baby.

Breast milk is a unique source of nutrition

No other food can match breast milk in terms of nutrition for a baby. It contains the balance of vitamins, minerals, proteins, growth factors and more your baby needs. It also has antibodies, which help protect your baby from illnesses.

The breast milk you make early on is called colostrum. It is thick and yellow, and many health professionals refer to it as liquid gold. That's because it is rich in nutrients and antibodies to protect your baby. As the experts at womenshealth.gov explain, your baby only gets a small amount at each feeding. But, it matches the amount a baby's tiny tummy can hold. A newborn's stomach can only hold about as much as a thimble!

Your breast milk changes as your baby grows. Colostrum turns into what's called mature milk between the third and fifth day after birth. This milk has just the right amount of fat, sugar, water and protein to help your baby grow. It is thinner than colostrum, but provides the nutrients and antibodies your baby needs.

Do babies who are breastfed need any additional nutrition? Jay Hoecker, M.D., is an emeritus pediatrics specialist at the Mayo Clinic. He suggests asking your baby's doctor about vitamin D supplements. Breast milk may not provide enough of this vitamin, which helps your baby use calcium.

Breast milk is easier to digest

For most babies - especially premature infants - breast milk is easier to digest than formula. The proteins in most formula are made from cow's milk. It takes time for a baby's stomach to get used to them.

Breast milk fights disease

The cells, hormones, and antibodies in breast milk help protect babies from illness. This protection is unique. Formula cannot match it. During nursing, the mother passes antibodies to the child. These help the child resist diseases. They also help make vaccines work better. The Natural Resources Defense Council sites many ways breast milk helps fight disease:

  • Breastfeeding has been shown to lower the number of ear infections. Ear infections are a big reason infants have to take antibiotics.
  • Respiratory illness is less common in breastfed babies.
  • Breastfed infants seem to have a lower risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.
  • Diarrhea is less common in breastfed infants.

The health benefits of breastfeeding can follow a child for many years.

  • Infants who are breastfed longer have fewer cavities throughout their lives.
  • They are less likely to become obese later in life.
  • Children who were breastfed have a lower risk of type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
  • Breastfeeding may also lower the risk of some childhood cancers in children younger than 15.

Breastfeeding helps moms, too

As womenshealth.gov reports, breastfeeding is linked to a lower risk of many illnesses in women. Among them are type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and depression after childbirth. Many studies show greater post-pregnancy weight loss among mothers who breastfeed. The risk of osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease, may also be less.

Breastfeeding is also good for moms and babies because of the physical contact. It helps babies feel warm and secure. And the skin-to-skin contact raises the mother's levels of a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin helps milk flow and can help the mother feel more calm and relaxed.

Breastfeeding helps save money. Formula and feeding supplies can cost as much as $1,500 each year. And breastfed babies are sick less often. That can mean lower healthcare costs.

Breastfeeding takes more effort than formula feeding at first. But, it can make life easier once you and your baby get used to it. There are no bottles and nipples to sterilize. And breast milk is always available and at the right temperature.

Hospital support for breastfeeding

The number of breastfeeding-friendly hospitals is growing. But many still need to do a better job to support breastfeeding. "Hospitals need to greatly improve practices to support mothers who want to breastfeed," said Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH. Dr. Frieden is the head of the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. The September 2011 CDC report shows that much work needs to be done.

Less than five percent of babies are born in hospitals that fully support breastfeeding. In fact, one in four infants receives formula within hours of birth. Offering new moms free formula is among the practices the CDC would like to end.

Environmental toxins and breast milk

Some parents worry about chemicals and pollutants that may be in mother's milk. But the American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, offers very encouraging news. Fifty years of studies show few cases in which an environmental pollutant in breast milk has made a child ill. The AAP stresses that the most important thing a nursing mother can do for her baby's health is to keep breastfeeding. Breast milk's benefits far outweigh any risks from pollutants.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) and ibuprofen (Advil®) pass through breast milk as do antibiotics and other medicines. Humana Medical Director Albert Tzeel says moms need to be careful about this and should ask their doctor about medicines that they may be taking if they are breastfeeding.

Tips for successful breastfeeding

As Dr. Hoecker explains, taking care of yourself is very important. "Eat healthy foods, drink plenty of fluids, and rest as much as possible," he says. "To boost your confidence, learn as much as you can about breastfeeding. Keep the environment calm and relaxed. Look to your partner and loved ones for support. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Friends who've successfully breastfed may be good sources of information. Lactation, or breastfeeding, consultants are available at many hospitals and clinics. Your baby's doctor can help, too." Breastfeeding can be a challenge at the beginning, but it's one that is worth the effort.

How long should you breastfeed your baby?

The AAP, recommends that mothers breastfeed for at least the first year. They can continue until mother and baby both feel they are ready to stop. The best and most natural time to wean is when your child leads the way. Of course, how the mother feels is very important in deciding when to wean.

In the first six months, the AAP says the baby should be fed with breast milk only. Unless a medical condition requires them, water, sugar water, juice and formula are not needed. After six months, the foods you add to the baby's diet should be rich in iron.

Breastfeeding after age one continues to support your baby's growth and development.

Is it risky not to breastfeed?

Breast milk is the best food for babies. But, as Dr. Hoecker explains, if breastfeeding isn't working for you, your baby may not receive enough fluid or nutrition. In this case, your baby's doctor may suggest adding formula to your baby's diet. The need for adequate nutrition and fluid is the most important consideration.

While formula-feeding raises health risks in babies, it can also save lives. Very rarely, babies are born unable to handle milk of any kind. These babies must have soy formula. Formula may also be needed if the mother has certain health conditions and does not have access to or doesn't want to use donor breast milk.

Does infant formula pose risks to the baby?

Commercial formulas don't contain the immunity-boosting ingredients of breast milk. And for most babies, it isn't as easy to digest. When prepared as directed, however, infant formula supports healthy babies who have typical dietary needs.

How can mothers who choose not to breastfeed handle feelings of guilt?

Many things, from lack of support at work to specific health conditions, can affect the decision about breastfeeding. As Dr. Hoecker writes, "Instead of feeling guilty about your decision, focus on nurturing your baby. You might also share your feelings with your doctor, your baby's doctor or others in your support circle.

"Remember, parenting...requires choices and compromises. What counts is doing the best you can as you face this new challenge."

How to feed your baby is a very personal decision. Get the facts. Talk with your doctor and your baby's doctor. Consider your support system. Taking the time to make an informed decision is important for you and your baby. It can make a difference now, and well into the future.

How to stick to an exercise plan and be motivated to stay on track by not skipping work outs

Stay motivated to stay active

Tempted to skip your workouts? Get tips to help you stay on track.

Read about sticking to an exercise plan
Learn how to take prescription medication correctly for fast recovery and to reduce harm

Get the most out of your meds

Information is power when it comes to medications and knowing how to use them safely.

Read know your medication
Learn how to stay healthy with an active lifestyle and prevent illness with good food habits

Take an active role in your good health

Prevention is good medicine when it comes to taking care of your health and well-being. Luckily, much of it is straightforward and simple.

Read adopt a healthy lifestyle