Breast milk is the only food and drink a baby needs upto 4 – 6 months of age. It offers the best balance of nutrients – proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, vitamins and water in the right quantity to meet the growth and developmental needs of babies. It also has a variety of protective factors.
Child health benefits
Breast milk is nutritionally perfect for infants for physical and mental development. It is readily available in right quantity at the right time. More the demand, more the supply – with more suckling more milk is formed in the breast. It doesnot require any preparation or sterilization. Itishygienic and easily digested resulting in less gas, colic, and spitting up by the infant.
Infectious diseasesBreastfeeding decreases the incidence and/or severity of a wide range of infectious diseases including bacterial meningitis, bacteremia, diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections, necrotising enterocolitis, ear problems, dental problems, urinary tract infections and late onset sepsis in preterm infants. It contains a number of protective factors along with vitamins and minerals sufficient for the baby in the first 6 months of life.
Other health outcomes
Some studies suggest decreased rates of sudden infant death syndrome in the first year of life and reduction in the incidence of insulin – dependent and non – insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, heart disease, hypertension, lymphoma, leukemia and Hodgkin disease, overweight and obesity, hypercholesterolemia, allergies and asthma.
Breastfeeding has been associated with slightly enhanced performance on tests of cognitivedevelopment and higher intelligence. Breastfeeding during a painful procedure such as a heel – stick for newborn screening provides analgesia to infants.
Maternal health benefits
1. Decrease in
- Postpartum bleeding and more rapid uterine involution attributable to increased concentrations of oxytocin.
- Menstrual blood loss and increased child spacing attributable to lactational amenorrhoea
- Risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer
- Risk of hip fractures and osteoporosis in the postmenopausal period. It helps in weight loss, thus helping the mother to regain her figure faster.
2. Fertility reduction is seen with breastfeeding, although breastfeeding should not be used as sole contraception.
3. It decreases mother’s workload, by saving her time and energy. No mixing, measuring, or cleaning up is required.
4. It also alleviates worry about milk spoiling or running out of supplies.
Breast milk is always available. Babies and breasts are portable. This makes night feed and travel comfortable and easy.
Breastfeeding promotes bonding and a close relationship between mother and infant. It provides an opportunity for rest during the day. It promotes better social and emotional development of the child.
Breastfeeding results in savings of more than Rs.6000 during first year. Infants with fewer illnesses results in lower health care costs. Healthier babies result in fewer sick days for parents.
Benefits to the family
Breastfeeding saves money, time, and conserves energy. All foods like breast milk substitutes, feeding utensils, and fuel cost money but mothers milk is free.Family time is not wasted on sterilization of utensils and preparation of feeds when mother is breastfeeding her infant. Illness are fewer – less expenditure and stress for the family and they can space pregnancies.
Economic, family and environmental benefits have been described. It contributes to child survival. It decreases annual health care costs, energy demands for production and transport of artificial feeding products, provides a natural way to help space pregnancies which contribute to population control, decreases the pollution of air, and water from the production and preparation of formula milk and used milk tins.
To ensure the success of breastfeeding the ‘Ten steps to Successful Breastfeeding’ were developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF in 1989. Every facility providing maternity services and care for newborn infants should follow these guidelines.
1) Have a written breastfeeding policy that is routinely communicated to all health care staff.
2) Train all health care staff in skills necessary to implement this policy.
3) Inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breastfeeding.
4) Help mothers initiate breastfeeding within a half – hour of birth.
5) Show mothers how to breastfeed and how to maintain lactation even if they should be separated from their infants.
6) Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breast milk unless medically indicated.
7) Practice rooming-in. Allow mothers and infants to remain together – 24 hours a day.
8) Encourage breastfeeding on demand.
9) Give no artificial teats or pacifiers (also called dummies or soothers) to breastfeeding infants.
10) Foster the establishment of breastfeeding support groups and refer mothers to them on discharge from the hospital or clinic.
The author is a consultant at the Department of Paediatrics, K. J. Somaiya Medical College.