Health Benefits of Breastfeeding

August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The month-long campaign works to highlight the health benefits of breastfeeding for both mothers and infants.

Recently the Commonwealth of Virginia joined 47 other states to allow a breastfeeding mother the right to breastfeed her child in public, including on private property such as restaurants, retailers, places of employment, and the like. Only Idaho and South Dakota remain as hold-outs in allowing women to fully exercise their right to nurse where and when they feel is necessary. Many feel the Commonwealth’s step will go a long way to support Virginia women in their efforts to do what’s best for their children’s health.

In the medical community the expression is “breast is best.” Obstetricians, pediatricians, and all health care providers work to encourage mothers to try to breast feed, if possible, to give their child the best quality food source. Medical study after study bears evidence that breast milk contains the perfect ratio of protein, fat, and vitamins, which to date has not been replicated by formula manufacturers. Breast milk is easily digestible causing much less stomach and intestinal upsets. Additionally breast milk contains antibodies which cannot be synthetically reproduced which help infants fight viruses and bacteria.

Infants who are breastfed have fewer allergies and less incidences of asthma than their formula-fed counterparts. In one study, infants who were breastfed exclusively for their first 6 months had far fewer cases of ear infections, diarrhea, and upper respiratory illnesses. Fewer illnesses translate to fewer sick baby visits and fewer hospitalizations. Breastfeeding is also associated with helping to combat childhood obesity and may help to curtail obesity into adulthood. It seems every few years a new benefit of breastfeeding is discovered. Recently a study showed a possible correlation to breastfeeding and higher IQs in school-age children.

Aside from the medical benefits to infants, many who advocate for breastfeeding point out the emotional bonds that can be generated from the breastfeeding experience for both infants and mothers. Mother-infant bonding, which is important for emotional development, can be enhanced by the skin-to-skin nature of breastfeeding.

The benefits of breastfeeding are not limited to infants. Breastfeeding women experience quite a few health benefits. One benefit is quicker post-pregnancy weight loss because breastfeeding expends extra calories. Breastfeeding has also been associated with lower rates of type 2 diabetes, as well as breast and ovarian cancer over a women’s lifetime.

For all of these reasons, it is a public health benefit to support women in their efforts to maximize their breastfeeding experience. Breastfeeding is like any other skill that needs to be learned and mastered. A first-time mother may feel overwhelmed with the demands of a newborn, and for this reason, many hospitals offer lactation help to new mothers to gain the knowledge they need to have a positive nursing experience.

Additionally there are several resources available in the community to help mothers navigate the initial complexities of breastfeeding. These include area La Leche Leagues and supportive services through local hospitals and healthcare providers. Many women find the economic savings and superior health advantages are worth the investment of time and effort necessary for a successful nursing experience. Additionally, there are many resources now available on the Internet—from “how to “ sites to online support groups to help overcome almost any nursing challenge.

Many women can have a successful breastfeeding experience with the right kind of support and encouragement, hence the national awareness campaign. Breastfeeding rates have increased dramatically over the last few decades, and in 2013, it was estimated that 78 percent of women began breastfeeding. The real area of improvement needs to come in the continuation of breastfeeding until at least the sixth month age of infancy. Additionally, the CDC would like to see improvements in rates of breastfeeding in certain key groups, including women of color and women under the age of 20. Additionally, women who work full time are less likely to continue breastfeeding after returning to work full time.

It’s estimated that health cost savings in the U.S. would be in the billions if every new mother would be able to successfully breastfeed for at least the first six months of their infant’s life. Attitudes as well as laws are beginning to change to reflect this country’s acceptance of the significant benefits of breastfeeding.

Dr. Hardy practices obstetrics and gynecology at Atlantic Ob/Gyn with locations in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. Please call 757-463-1234 or visit www.atlanticobgyn.com

Timothy J. Hardy, M.D.

Dr. Timothy Hardy, M.D. has been practicing medicine in the community for many years. He received his medical degree from Eastern Virginia Medical School and founded his own practice, Atlantic OB-GYN, in 1990, where he has been providing women with exceptional care ever since. Website: www.atlanticobgyn.com
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