Breastfeeding is a big plus for both mother and baby
Over time, cultures change and people adapt to situations that prevail in society. The influence of our modern and busy lifestyles has also had an impact on breastfeeding along the years.
Breastfeeding used to be a very healthy tradition; we now need further awareness about it, particularly on exclusive breastfeeding. The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and to continue it for the first years of a child together with the introduction of other complementary foods where possible.
Breast milk is known for its essential nutrients which change as the baby grows and develops. This is a unique characteristic that no other breast milk substitute can imitate. Breastfeeding is renowned for its benefits to both mother and baby.
Breast milk contains carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals in the right proportions and with a nutrient content that changes according to the baby’s needs. It contains antibodies derived from the mother, which offer protection against harmful bacteria, viruses or fungi that may cause diarrhoea or acute respiratory infection in the early days of life.
Good nutrients will influence the child’s health and development
Breast milk is, in fact, referred to as the first vaccine. With every feed, the baby’s immune system is boosted. It also contains hormones, growth factors and cytokines, which give it an advantage over substitute formula milk.
Research shows that breastfeeding has many health benefits for both the baby and mother. The benefits for the baby are vast, as breastfeeding reduces the baby’s risk of ear infections, asthma, eczema due to allergies, vomiting and diarrhoea illness, being hospitalised for wheezing and pneumonia during the first year of life, getting type 1 or 2 diabetes, acute lymphocytic leukemia and acute myelogenous leukemia (two types of childhood cancer) and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Breastfeeding also reduces the mother’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, premenopausal breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Mothers require full support before and after birth not only by their relatives but also by society at large. Breastfeeding is a learned behaviour that needs good preparation and support during the early days. It will become easier with practice.
Many parents worry about the amount of milk consumed by the breastfed babies, as one cannot see the amount they are drinking. Parents can be assured that their baby is getting enough to eat if the latter seem satisfied and content after being fed, produce about four to six wet diapers a day, have regular bowel movements, sleep well, are alert when awake and are gaining weight.
Breast milk is more easily digested than formula milk, so breastfed babies feed more frequently. The advice is to breastfeed the baby on demand.
Breastfeeding mothers do not need any special diet during breastfeeding but a variety of nutritious food is essential. Good nutrients will influence the child’s health and development. It is recommended that: mothers eat a variety of carbohydrates, proteins, good fats, vitamins and minerals; eat five portions of vegetables and fruit daily; drink plenty of plain water and limit teas and coffees; plan meals throughout the day, such as breakfast, snack, lunch, snack and dinner; avoid skipping meals as this leads to craving for unhealthy food; watch out what they eat as it may cause discomfort to the baby; limit sugar, saturated fats and salt as this may influence the child’s preference for food, and instead flavour food with herbs and spices; and exercise for at least 30 minutes a day to help relaxation.
Breastfeeding mothers often worry when they return to work. Many workplaces support such mothers by providing support for expression of breastmilk and the safe storage of the milk. Support is available for mothers who wish to breastfeed, so this experience can be facilitated.
Helplines include the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Directorate (tel. 2326 6000), Parent Craft Services (tel. 2545 5124), and Breastfeeding Walk-in Clinic (tel. 2545 4445/7).
Dr Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent of Public Health.