Investing in the health of moms and babies

There is more to breastfeeding than providing milk. By protecting the health status of both mom and baby, breastfeeding has a positive impact on the level of overall public health, along with benefits for our economy and environment, too.

From the first drops of breast milk, called colostrum, babies receive important antibodies in a rich, gold-colored liquid that coats the intestinal tract, creating a barrier against harmful bacteria. As the baby develops, the unique makeup of breast milk changes to meet his or her needs for nutrients and antibodies that will protect him or her from illnesses. This results in fewer incidences of ear infections, diarrhea, respiratory infection, and asthma compared to formula-fed babies.

Breastfeeding supports a child’s ability to learn and helps prevent obesity and chronic diseases later in life. It provides a positive emotional impact for mom and baby, through the release of “feel good” hormones.

Breastfeeding can have positive impacts on a mother’s health as well. The first act of nursing stimulates uterine contractions that begin to shrink the uterus and control bleeding after childbirth. In addition, breastfeeding burns close to 500 calories per day, helping mom return to her pre-pregnancy weight. Incidence of ovarian, uterine, and certain breast cancers are also less common in women who have breastfed.

From a practical standpoint, breastfeeding costs a family less than formula feeding. Meanwhile, and because there’s nothing to manufacture, dispose of, or ship, it has less impact on the environment than formula. Breastfeeding also contributes to a more productive workforce since parents miss less work to care for sick infants.

The Centers for Disease Control’s Breastfeeding Report Card shows the percentage of U.S. infants who begin breastfeeding continues to rise. In 2013, 81.1 percent of U.S. infants started to breastfeed, with 51.8 percent still breastfeeding at six months. This is up from 77 percent and 49 percent in the 2012 breastfeeding report card. The Healthy People 2020 Goals set by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion aim to increase these percentages to 81.9 and 60.9 percent, respectively. Research indicates that if 90 percent of families breastfed exclusively for six months, the U.S. would save $13 billion per year in medical care costs because fully breastfed infants typically need fewer sick care visits, prescriptions, and hospitalizations.

Each mom’s breastfeeding choices and goals must be respected, but eliminating breastfeeding barriers at the workplace, in public venues, and even social pressure can help mothers who choose to sustain breastfeeding to be successful. Breastfeeding is a natural part of childbirth, however, it is not always easy. It involves an investment of time and personal energy. Breastfeeding is a team effort, and moms and babies need support from those around them to help them meet their goals.

Establishing and supporting breastfeeding in the days after delivery are critical for success. Hospitals across the U.S. are striving to provide optimal care that protects breastfeeding and mother-baby bonding. Hospitals designated as Baby-Friendly have successfully demonstrated efforts to provide this level of care, a commitment and dedication that extends beyond the hospital setting with ongoing assistance through support groups and one-on-one lactation consultations, if needed. Williamsport Regional Medical Center received the Baby-Friendly Designation in March of 2017.

Family and friends play a role in supporting a breastfeeding mom and baby. It is important to provide mom and baby with plenty of uninterrupted time together in the early days to help begin and establish breastfeeding. A baby is breastfeeding frequently during this time to help build a full milk supply. Family and friends can offer encouragement, help ensure mom is well-fed, and allow time for mom to rest when the baby is sleeping. Family and friends can help with other baby care and household tasks, and also by encouraging and helping mom to seek assistance when facing challenges.

Employers and business owners can support breastfeeding by providing a quiet, clean place for mom to breastfeed and/or pump and store breast milk.

At the heart of it, breastfeeding is part of a special relationship between a mom and her baby-one that can have a lasting impact on his or her health and well-being. When this relationship is respected and protected by our community, everyone benefits.

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Natalie McCullen, RN, BSN, IBCLC is a lactation consultant with The Birthplace at UPMC Susquehanna. She is certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners and specializes in the clinical management of breastfeeding.

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