During the nine months that your baby was in your womb, you fed it the nutrients it needed night and day, and whilst you hopefully took the time to look after yourself and to eat a healthy diet, providing their feeds didn't take much thought on your part. Now that your baby is on the outside, you are fully in charge of feeding them. Where to start? Well, fortunately, the incredible abilities of the female body don't end with giving birth. Since the start of your pregnancy your mammary glands (breasts) have been preparing to produce breast milk, the primary source of nutrition for your baby - unless you choose to use man made formula instead.
Breastfeeding attracts much debate in today's society, primarily because it is considered to be 'pushed' quite hard by health professionals. Some women choose not to breastfeed for personal reasons, others are unable to breastfeed so have no choice but to choose infant formula. There are women who persevere with it despite finding it difficult, although in most cases it does become easier quite quickly. The controversy tends to arise when women feel that they are being frowned upon for not breastfeeding, or end up breastfeeding because they feel under pressure to do so, rather than because it is what they want to do. In this article we look at the advantages of breastfeeding, to understand the arguments for choosing it over infant formula.
What is Breast Milk?
Breast milk is the liquid produced by your breasts, with which you can feed your baby. Breast milk is designed purposefully to sustain a mother's baby and to give it the healthiest possible start in life. The World Health Organization recommends that infants are fed exclusively on breast milk for the first six months of their lives, and that thereafter the baby should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age and beyond. Whilst man-made infant formula is considered the next best alternative, there are few health professionals who believe that it is as good for babies as their mother's own breast milk.
What are the Benefits of Breast Feeding?
You know it is clean and safe.
You needn't worry about the safety of breast milk, particularly if the baby is fed directly from the breast (as opposed to from a bottle where there are risks of contamination, as with formula). Your milk is safe and there is a constant provision of a cleansing substance from the bumps on your nipples which help to keep your nipples clean and comfortable for your baby to nurse from.
Breast milk adapts to meet your baby's needs.
If you buy infant formula you usually use just one type between birth and six months, and then another stage of formula is available for babies aged six months to a year. Breast milk, however, changes all the time. It changes across the course of the day and it adapts to the baby's growing demands as they get older. The first few days of feeding provide your baby with a substance called colostrum, giving them a huge boost of nutrients and immunity boosting antibodies - it even acts as a mild laxative to help them pass their first bowel movement (meconium). Breast milk differs during a feed, beginning with more watery sweet milk which satiates their thirst, before turning creamier and richer in taste, when it contains more fats, proteins and other nutrients. There is no getting away from it, breast milk is impressively clever stuff!
No water required.
Even on hot days you can depend on breast milk to provide adequate hydration for your baby, provided you feed on demand. Formula fed babies, however, ought to have separate water feeds (using cooled boiled water) in addition to their regular milk feeds during hot weather.
Easier on their tummy.
Breast milk is more easily digested than infant formula, meaning that the baby may be less likely to suffer from wind and reflux problems. It also means that some of the nutrients in the milk are more easily absorbed than when the baby is fed formula.
Antibodies in breast milk protect against infections and diseases.
There is continuous debate over the extent of the health benefits of breast milk and new medical studies are taking place all the time. But one thing is clear: breast milk does help to prevent and fight certain infections and diseases common in young children. Breast fed babies do appear to have fewer colds, they have fewer severe chest and ear infections, as well as a lower likelihood of gastrointestinal illnesses which cause diarrhoea and vomiting. Babies fed exclusively on breast milk during the early weeks of their lives are also shown to have a lower risk of asthma. In addition to this, breast fed babies are thought to have faster recovery times from infections and illnesses than formula fed babies.
Reduced chance of obesity.
Breast fed babies are less likely to be obese later in life.
Top of the class!
Some studies indicate that breast fed babies, particularly those fed on demand, demonstrate a higher IQ by the time they are in their teens. It is worth noting that there is also some research indicating that formula fed babies also have a higher IQ when fed on demand rather than according to a schedule.
Less likely to cause allergic reactions.
Babies fed breast milk are much less likely to experience allergic reactions than those fed on infant formula. This is because an intolerance of cow's milk is relatively common in infants and most infant formula is manufactured using cow's milk - although there are alternatives available such as soya based formulas. It is possible that a baby shows some intolerance to breast milk when the mother consumes certain foods but these are usually easily identified and the reactions are generally quite minor.
Breast milk acts as a mild laxative, meaning that your baby is less likely to suffer from the discomfort of constipation.
Breast milk encourages a taste for different foods.
The taste of breast milk varies according to what foods the mother has eaten, and many people believe that this variety in taste helps babies to be more accepting of different foods when it comes to weaning.
Baby-led volume control.
This is sometimes cited as one of the reasons women don't like to breastfeed, because they can't see how much milk their baby is getting. On the contrary, this is an advantage to feeding your baby - you allow them to feed until they decide to come off the breast because they have had enough. A baby's needs vary depending on the time of day, how active they have been and how quickly they are growing at that time. Breastfeeding your baby means that you can adapt the volume to their needs without any effort. Most health professionals are of the opinion that you can''t overfeed a breastfed baby, whereas with a bottle it can be tempting to wiggle the bottle around in their mouth to keep them going or to drip milk into their mouth to encourage them to keep feeding - neither of which is really possible with breastfeeding. The best way to monitor whether a baby is getting enough food is to have them weighed regularly and to check that their weight is gaining at the rate it ought to (your health visitors will provide you with a chart to plot your baby's growth on if you don't have one already).
Better sucking motion.
The sucking motion at the breast exercises the jaw and mouth muscles more effectively than at the bottle teat, helping to kick start healthy oral development.
Fast food to go.
Nothing could be more convenient. There is no sterilising involved, no flasks of hot water when you go out or measured beakers of powdered formula. There is no washing bottles, and no calculating how many fluid ounces baby has had in any 24 hour period. When baby needs feeding, your milk is ready and waiting.
No night time kitchen trips!
This follows from the point above but merits its own separate point! When your baby needs feeding at night, not only do you want to avoid having to traipse to the kitchen in order to prepare a bottle with your eyes half shut, but you also want to get their feed to them as quickly as possible so that they do not become too wound up in the meantime (patience is not a common quality in babies). Breastfeeding allows you to get them fed and soothed with the minimum of effort on your part, and to do it quickly enough to prevent them from becoming too upset. And if it turns out that they don't need milk (that instead they just needed their nappy changing) then you haven't wasted any time or money preparing a feed!
Cheap as chips.
Actually, it's free. OK so you might want to invest in some breast pads and a couple of nursing bras but there are no direct costs with breastfeeding, whereas infant formula has to be bought and paid for which may be difficult if you are on a tight budget.
A head start beating the bulge.
During the early days of breastfeeding you will probably notice that you get abdominal cramps similar to period pains, these are actually a sign that your uterus is contracting back to its normal size and these contractions are helped by breastfeeding. In addition to helping you get rid of that bump, breastfeeding can also help you to lose excess weight that you may have gained during pregnancy. Breastfeeding burns as many as 500 calories each day - now there's a sofa workout you could get used to!
A chance to bond.
Most of us expect that we will bond with our baby from the second they are born, that it is an inevitable outcome of becoming a mother. This isn't always the way, and even if you do feel you are bonding well with your baby, it can be easy to miss out on opportunities to sit quietly with them, when every time they are settled you feel the urge to either fall asleep yourself or begin catching up with the 101 jobs that you're behind on. Breastfeeding forces you to sit down and take some quiet time with your baby, giving you time to relax and enjoy the skin to skin contact with them.
Reduces your risk of cancer.
Women who breastfeed their babies do have a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The reduction in risk is relatively small, but it is real. These cancers are two of the more common cancers that effect women, and the reduced risk applies to the breastfed child as well as the mother. We're not talking miracle barriers here, but it is a fact worth being aware of.
A spare hand!
Feeding your baby, via whatever method, is a special and intimate activity that you should make the most of as much as possible without letting yourself be distracted by other things. However, realistically, a newborn will probably be feeding 8-12 times a day and having a spare hand can be extremely useful! Bottle feeding safely requires the use of both arms, but breastfeeding, once you get the hang of it, only requires one - meaning that you can reach for your drink, biscuit or your phone to check what hour of the night it is! Be cautious not to overestimate your capabilities when breastfeeding though, it can be tempting to try and do jobs that are unsafe, so don't be tempted by the kettle and don't try to feed on the move if you can help it, if you were to fall or knock into something you could seriously hurt the baby.