Expectant mothers – particularly first-timers – tend to think of breastfeeding as a natural transition that will take place with little or no effort. As most experienced moms will tell you, it is not quite that simple.
The Complete Source of Nutrition
By Julianne Hale
Breastfeeding is an incredibly rewarding activity that has a wealth of benefits for both baby and mom, but it takes knowledge, effort, determination and, most of all, support. Too many mothers give up after a short period of time, or never give breastfeeding a try, due to a lack of information, frustration or a lack of support.
Nationwide, there is an effort to support breastfeeding moms and babies. Today, breastfeeding is a public health goal, according to the Office of the Surgeon General. However, recent studies indicate that rates of exclusive and sustained breastfeeding remain low. Less than one-third of infants in the U.S. are exclusively breastfed at three months of age, and almost 80 percent of infants stop breastfeeding before the recommended minimum age of one year. Further, there are still many racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities with breastfeeding.
“Breastfeeding is not something we are born knowing how to do,” says Coleen Sprayberry, RN, Erlanger’s lactation consultant. “Years ago, there was a large support network of women within the family, but these days many moms have never been around anyone who has [breastfed]. They need a great deal of encouragement to get through those first few weeks.”
Benefits of Breast Milk
Breast milk is a complete source of nutrition for infants. It contains antibodies and living cells that protect an infant from infections and promote healthy bacteria that help the intestines to digest nutrients properly. Breast milk also contains essential vitamins and minerals for optimal growth and development, as well as proteins, fats and other substances that are adapted for the needs of a growing baby.
“Breastfeeding should be vital for all babies, but for premature babies it is absolutely imperative,” says Dr. Liz Kennedy, a neonatologist in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital. To their credit, the entire NICU staff at T.C. Thompson Hospital has helped develop a plan to assist moms with babies in the NICU to successfully breastfeed beyond discharge from the hospital. The effort, spearheaded by neonatologist Dr. Amy Kirk, takes a team approach to encouraging breastfeeding for newborns.
As a mother who has successfully breastfed her own children, Dr. Kennedy promotes the practical benefits of breastfeeding. “To be honest, it’s much easier to breastfeed,” she says. “Formula feeding is more of a hassle. Breast milk is always available, it’s always the perfect temperature, and it doesn’t require any equipment.”
Another benefit to breast milk is that it is free. According to recent studies, it costs approximately $3,164 to feed a baby formula for one year – and that does not include the cost of bottles and nipples.
Once a baby is born, a mother’s job of breastfeeding begins. A newborn should be fed at least eight to 12 times during each 24-hour period, according to La Leche League International, an organization dedicated to promoting breastfeeding through education and support.
A common worry for new moms who begin breastfeeding is whether their baby is getting enough milk, according to Shari Hicks, RN, LCCE, IBCLC, clinic coordinator of lactation and OB education at Parkridge East Hospital. “We tell new moms that if the baby is having regular wet and dirty diapers, that is a good sign that the baby is getting enough,” she says. Most moms are capable of breastfeeding, but if a doctor sees that a baby is not gaining weight, or is not having wet and dirty diapers, or has high bilirubin levels, then other options may need to be considered.
Sometimes a mother’s initial hesitance stems from a simple lack of understanding about the stages of breast milk. Breast milk changes over time with a baby’s nutritional needs. The first milk produced is colostrum, a yellowish liquid that contains protein, minerals, vitamins, and antibodies. Colostrum is produced during pregnancy and the first few days after delivery. The transitional milk comes in after the colostrum, followed by mature milk about 10 to 15 days after the baby is born. The type and level of protein in breast milk changes to meet the processing abilities of a baby’s developing kidneys.
“Breastfeeding is supply and demand – your body supplies exactly what the baby needs,” says Hicks. “That is why combining formula with breastfeeding can derail breastfeeding.”
Breast milk also changes during each feeding. The last milk in the breast, called hindmilk, is higher in calories, nutrients, and fat and helps satisfy a baby’s appetite. To get to the hindmilk, breastfeeding (or pumping) should continue on one breast until it is emptied, which usually requires at least 10 to 20 minutes of feeding or pumping per breast.
Most health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend that most infants breastfeed for at least 12 months. These organizations also recommend that for about the first six months infants should be exclusively breastfed.
Most of the time, mom and baby will settle into breastfeeding after a few days. But it is important for new moms to be aware of some of the challenges that can occur along the journey of breastfeeding.
In the early days of breastfeeding, some mothers experience engorgement, which happens when the breast fills with milk. It can be quite uncomfortable and the breast can feel hot to the touch and full. The best remedy for engorgement is to feed the baby often and ensure correct positioning and proper latch. Gentle massages and compresses can also help relieve the discomfort of engorgement.
Sometimes a mother’s nipples can become dry and cracked due to frequent nursing. Medical-grade lanolin (available at pharmacies and large grocery stores) can be applied directly to the nipples to ease any discomfort.
Mastitis, an infection of the breast that can cause breast soreness and discomfort, can be another challenge. Mastitis can cause flu-like symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, and achiness. If these symptoms occur, it is important that the mother get plenty of rest, nurse often, and apply heat to the sore area of the breast. If symptoms continue, it is important to seek medical attention.
Breastfeeding is something that most moms can achieve, to the benefit of their babies as well as their own bodies. The right combination of information, encouragement and determination can create the ideal environment for breastfeeding success and an unmatched bonding experience for both mother and child.
Julianne Hale and her family reside in Cleveland. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Illinois State University and then an MBA from the University of Phoenix. Julianne is a member of the Chattanooga Writers Guild, is married, and has two children.