By Dr Khushboo Shah Sawant
Often, we see celebrities publicizing via advertisements put out by the Ministry of Health recommending exclusive breast feeding for 6 months, insisting on feeding the first milk etc. But do we really know the importance or understand the facts behind such insistence? Today, we shall go through the various benefits of breastfeeding, how is it advantageous to the mother as well as the infant, and uncover some common myths and facts.
Breastfeeding provides many health benefits for the mother as well as the baby. The primary and most vital being: breast milk is packed with all the vitamins and nutritional requirements of the baby for the first 6 months of their lives. The composition of breast milk is such that it is naturally easily digestible and so, is suited for the baby’s intestines. It also contains substances known as antibodies that improve your baby’s immunity to a great extent that help them fight external pathogens causing diseases like gastroenteritis, common colds, urinary tract infections, and ear infections that they may be exposed to after birth. Breast milk also protect your baby from developing allergic reactions like asthma, eczema etc. It also boosts the child’s intelligence as breast milk contains certain fatty acids which are vital for the development of the brain of your baby. Exclusively breast fed babies have improved cognitive development, which simply means breastfeeding can make your baby more intelligent. Nursing your baby may even protect them from life threatening disorders like cancer, and childhood diabetes. Breast fed babies also have reduced occurrences of SIDS (sudden infantile death syndrome).
The mother’s body makes antibodies or protective immunity against pathogens she is exposed to, these antibodies are transferred through breast milk to the baby thus the baby invariably gets immunity against the pathogens present in the surroundings. It is even of higher importance in case of low birth weight or premature babies as they are more susceptible to external disease producing agents. Insulin passed through breast milk helps in creating fat and helps the baby to gain weight. Breast fed babies are more efficient than bottle fed babies in regulating their feed patterns and eventually eating patterns as they grow older. Breastfeeding includes skin to skin contact which is important for the baby, as they feel comforted and protected. It also helps to strengthen the bond of the mother and her baby. It even helps to maintain the body temperature of the baby.
Breastfeeding is an extremely healthy choice for the mother as well, as it helps the uterus to shrink back to its normal size. It may also reduce the risk of anemia by reducing the post delivery bleeding. It reduces the risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer etc. Breast feeding also helps the mother lose weight as nursing helps in burning away calories. Breast milk is a cost effective as it it is free, hygienic, and healthy form of nutrition for your baby. One does not have to worry about sterilizing milk bottles or getting the milk to the right temperature etc.
Now we move on to the next point, what is the first milk? And why is it so important to feed the newborn? The first milk produced is known as ‘Colostrum’ and ranges from clear fluid to slightly thick in consistency and yellowish in colour. Colostrum is prepared in the breasts during the later stages of pregnancy and is an extremely vital feed as it is rich in antibodies and high proteins which are very essential for the newborn to build their immunity. It is an apt feed for newborns that need smaller feeds, and this colostrum is then replaced by breast milk. Colostrum is almost as useful as an immunization for the newborn. Its composition is such that it is ideal for digestion as it also prepares the baby’s digestive system for further functioning. Colostrum is rich in the protective white blood cells that give immediate protection to the baby against various infections like pneumonia, and also tries to prevent against jaundice. It is also rich in nutrients like calcium and zinc, and also vitamins, which are important for the overall growth and development of the baby. Colostrum is high in cholesterol and sugars, which are needed for the development of the nervous system at this stage. Every mother must try to feed the baby with colostrums. In case if direct feeding may not be possible if the child is away from the mother due to various reasons, you must speak with the concerned doctor if it would be possible to express the milk and fed to the baby by an external source like a breast pump.
There are also various myths connected to breast feeding:
Women with smaller breast or smaller nipples cannot breastfeed: This is far from truth. Like every woman is different so is the difference with their breasts. Babies adapt to the shape and size of the breast as well as nipples and manage to get their feed.
Many women do not produce breast milk: Most women produce enough breast milk to provide for their newborns, irrelevant of the size of the breast, nipples or the sensation of fullness in the breasts.
Mothers must drink milk to produce: Drinking milk has practically nothing to do with the production of milk. Of course the mother can drink milk to keep herself hydrated and for nutritional balance but milk has no role to play in the production of breast milk.
Breasts will sag if the baby is breastfed: The changes in the breast occur during pregnancy due to the hormonal cocktail during pregnancy and childbirth that make the changes in the breasts, not the breastfeeding. Most women return to almost pre pregnancy size in a few months time.