Not so long ago, I wrote a blog piece about some practical things you could try if breastfeeding wasn't working and things were getting desperate. I've been meaning to do this for a while, but it's only fair that I also write one about why I believe breastfeeding is the best form of nutrition for babies too…
Ok, it might seem a little strange that a bloke is talking about breastfeeding, but although I will never have 'direct' experience of it, my Paediatrician role means that I deal with it almost everyday. It is important that doctors who deal with infant feeding know what it involves and how to support it, as well as what to do when it goes wrong and the alternatives out there. Contrary to what some people may think, I have had training in supporting breastfeeding from specialists in their field and continue to do so. I am also a big advocate of the use of safe, screened donor breast milk.
I whole-heartedly recommend breastfeeding and have seen it work so well. I have also dealt with situations where it isn't possible, isn't recommended or simply hasn't been successful. I have also seen too many babies become seriously unwell because parents think they have no other option. This is NOT good enough, and although I support the 'breast is best' message, I feel we have to be responsible and realistic about it too - and also respect that it is a CHOICE.
Breastfeeding is the NORMAL way to feed babies. It has loads of benefits, including:
- Milk that is 'tailor-made' to your baby and their needs - easily digested and full of essential nutrients.
- Passage of immunity from mother to baby and educed risk of infections (including gastroenteritis, chest infections, and NEC).
- Reduced risk of allergies in babies (e.g. eczema).
- An easy-to-prepare, readily-available supply of milk - that doesn't cost much!
- Less chance of babies being constipated, which is far more common in formula-fed babies.
- Long-term health benefits for babies (e.g. reduced risk of obesity and diabetes).
- It can help bonding between mother and baby (that's not to say you can't bottle-feed and bond too!).
- Reduced risk of some cancers in mothers (e.g. breast and ovarian cancer).
- It may even help to lose some of the 'baby weight' as it uses up calories!
- It is the ideal milk for premature babies who have immature and less tolerant digestive systems.
I could go on for days and days about how good breast milk is for mother and baby, but the evidence is clear - it is the BEST form of nutrition. However, it is important to remember that it is not always easy to do and can require a great deal of persistence, patience and support. Also, it is not always possible (e.g. sick babies admitted to intensive care, mothers with substance abuse problems etc.). Others may find that a combination of breast and bottle-feeding works best for them and their baby - that's OK too. Remember: it is a choice and some people choose not to breast feed, and they deserve equal respect and support.
There are perfectly acceptable alternatives available - this could be donor milk (which MUST come from an official UK donor milk bank) or formula (any one you choose). If you are interested in finding out about donor milk and when it can be used then check out the excellent UK Association of Milk Banking website.
If you want to find out more about breastfeeding help and support then check out the great NHS Choices website.