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Congratulations on the birth of your healthy bundle of joy! Welcoming a baby into the family is exciting, and for new parents the experience is full of new discoveries. Breastfeeding is one of those new experiences for the mother, and it’s not just about the transfer of much-needed nutrition from mother to child - although that is the primary reason why all mothers are recommended to breastfeed.

The emotional bond between mother and child is also strengthened through breastfeeding, thanks to the skin-to-skin touch and the act of suckling. Breast milk is the natural first food for babies, and it provides all the nutrients and energy your baby needs to thrive. The simple process of breastfeeding has far-reaching effects: it doesn’t just protect your child from infections and reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but also helps build immunity for the rest of his or her life. 

Breast milk is a building block for the newborn, and every baby needs it to grow up strong and healthy. But that’s not all, since breastfeeding is also extremely beneficial for the mother. Emotionally, it helps the mother reduce stress, increases confidence and instils positive feelings. Physically, it can reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, and also decreases the occurrence of arthritis and osteoporosis. Breastfeeding also helps mothers get back to their pre-pregnancy weight faster, and helps their uterus shrink back sooner while reducing postnatal bleeding.

According to a study published in The Lancet in 2016, increased breastfeeding rates globally can prevent 823,000 infant deaths and 20,000 maternal deaths from breast cancer annually. With such immense benefits, breastfeeding is a habit that needs to be promoted universally so that infant and maternal mortality rates can be decreased. Here’s everything you need to know about breastfeeding.

  1. When you should start breastfeeding
  2. When you should stop breastfeeding
  3. Benefits of breastfeeding for the baby
  4. Short-term benefits of breastfeeding
  5. Lifelong benefits of breastfeeding
  6. Benefits of breastfeeding for the mother
  7. Physical benefits of breastfeeding
  8. Emotional benefits of breastfeeding
  9. Breastfeeding to reduce lifelong disease risks
  10. Myths about breastfeeding
  11. What are alarmins in breast milk

It doesn’t matter if you delivered your baby vaginally or via c-section, breastfeeding should be started immediately after giving birth - ideally in the first hour. Once the doctor deems both you and your baby stable, the baby will be handed to you and you can feed him or her for the first time.

You must learn how to hold the baby right to help him or her latch on to the breast better. Your comfort while breastfeeding is also important, so make sure your posture is right and you’re not straining yourself in any way. Your baby will need to be fed eight to 12 times in a day, so you need to be prepared for this. Create a safe and calm environment during breastfeeding to make sure the process becomes easier for you and the baby.

Breastfeeding is a long practice and needs to be continued for the first few years of the baby’s life. According to the World Health Organization WHO), babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their life. After this period, semi-solid and solid foods should be gradually introduced in the baby’s diet. You will have to continue breastfeeding throughout this period, which is often referred to as weaning.

Once the baby is able to properly digest solid food, the frequency of breastfeeding can be reduced. WHO recommends that babies should be breastfed for up to two years and beyond, but after 18 months since delivery, the nutritional value of breast milk decreases substantially. At this stage, breastfeeding becomes more about a habit rather than a necessity for children. So, consult your doctor about discontinuing breastfeeding after 18 months.

There is a reason why babies who are breastfed have well-developed and strong immune systems, especially if the mother’s immunity is excellent. The mother’s mature immune system has developed antibodies or immunoglobulins against diseases she has been exposed to. These immunoglobulins, predominantly type IgA, are passed on to the baby via breast milk and help build immunity against a number of diseases during infancy, childhood and even much later in life.

The immunity-boosting nutrient the baby gets from breastfeeding can help keep many diseases at bay during infancy. Of course, the baby also needs to get immunized and should get all the vaccinations needed during infancy, from polio to hepatitis. But consuming breast milk for the first 18 months of life can also help keep the following issues at bay:

Apart from boosting the baby’s immunity to prevent immediate threats to his or her health, breastfeeding also introduces the baby to antibodies that can later come in handy. These lifelong benefits of breastfeeding are especially prominent with babies born to mothers who have excellent immunity. 

Breastfeeding can reduce the risk of the following diseases and disorders:

Breastfeeding may be absolutely important for the nutrition and sustenance of the baby, but its benefits for the mother are quite high and necessary as well. The mother is not just the source of nutrition, but also a caregiver and a guardian the child will grow to depend upon for the rest of his or her life. This is the reason why mothers should choose to breastfeed unless they can’t for specific health reasons - like if they are infected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) or have AIDS.

Pregnancy is a long and lifestyle-changing experience, and motherhood is a new one for the mother. The act of breastfeeding helps the mother transition physically from pregnancy to motherhood, while also helping her cope with this transition physically. Breastfeeding can bring about the following physical changes in the mother:

  • If you are worried about pregnancy weight and how to lose it after your baby is delivered, breastfeeding can help. Maintaining a constant milk supply for the baby is a process that can burn upto 500 calories in a day, and thereby help you lose weight faster.
  • Your uterus expands during pregnancy to accommodate your growing baby. Once you have delivered the baby, the uterus gradually shrinks back to normal and the baby bump slowly disappears. Breastfeeding accelerates this shrinking of the uterus.
  • Postpartum bleeding is natural, but breastfeeding can reduce its flow and help you cope with the pain associated with it.
  • Breastfeeding also reduces the risks of anemia and urinary tract infections.
  • Since you will be breastfeeding for 12-18 months, this will give your system a natural time to space out the difference between babies. This can help you cope with motherhood better and help family planning in general.

Breastfeeding isn’t just about the baby’s demand for milk and the mother’s supply. There are psychological benefits associated with breastfeeding that prove that there is much more to this natural process. 

The mother can garner the following emotional benefits from breastfeeding:

  • Breastfeeding produces hormones like oxytocin and prolactin, which are naturally soothing and can help reduce stress.
  • Breastfeeding babies ensures that they will cry less and not fall sick as often, which can be a huge relief for mothers. If your baby is satiated and healthy, you too will be well-rested, less irritable and healthy.
  • Breastfeeding promotes skin-to-skin touch between mother and child, and also promotes the bond-building acts of holding, stroking, singing, etc. If this bond is properly built then it can induce feelings of affection, confidence and happiness in the mother. This in turn might help keep postpartum depression at bay.

The act of breastfeeding can also help the mother build resistance or immunity against a number of health issues that can show up later in life. The following are some diseases that are less likely to plague you if you breastfeed:

  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Endometriosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension or high blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Heart diseases

Breastfeeding is a healthy practice that can improve the baby as well as the mother’s health. It’s a natural process that nurtures the baby and instills affection and confidence in the mother. Despite this, there are a number of myths associated with breastfeeding which are quite popular. Most of these myths aren’t true, but they do pose a hindrance in promoting breastfeeding globally.

Here are a few of these myths about breastfeeding that need to be busted immediately.

Myth 1: Breastfeeding will make my breasts sag

Fact: Pregnancy hormones and the fact that your breasts are swollen after bearing a child can stretch out the ligaments of your breasts - which in turn can later lead to sagging. This happens naturally, and breastfeeding will not make any difference to it at all. It’s more important to wear a good, supportive bra to deal with sagging rather than blaming breastfeeding or stopping it altogether.

Myth 2: Breastfeeding in public should not be done

Fact: If you are travelling with your newborn or infant, it is likely he or she will get hungry sooner or later. This can happen while you are in public, and instead of postponing breastfeeding you should feed your baby immediately to soothe him or her. Remember, breastfeeding is a natural process and you should be able to do it as and when your baby needs it, whether you are in public or not. If it is too embarrassing, you can always use a breast pump to store milk before you travel and use a feeding bottle for your baby in public.

Myth 3: Formula milk is the same as breast milk

Fact: Formula milk is usually made with cow’s milk, which often has harmful bacteria (which is why you need hot water to prepare it properly). Clearly, it doesn’t have the same antibodies and nutrition as breast milk does.

Myth 4: Some women produce less breast milk than others

Fact: Breastfeeding can be a little difficult in the beginning, but your body is always equipped to deal with the feeding demands of your baby. As your baby’s feeding pattern stabilises, so will your supply of breast milk to meet with it properly. It’s important to remember that all women produce enough breast milk to feed their baby.

Myth 5: I can’t have sex when I’m breastfeeding

Fact: Yes, your breast milk might leak a little, and sure, your vagina might feel a little drier due to breastfeeding hormones. But that does not mean that having sex with your partner is impossible during the 18 months when you have to breastfeed. Use a safe lubricant and take things slow, but having sex while breastfeeding will not harm you or your breast milk in any way.

Myth 6: Breastfeeding is painful

Fact: Breastfeeding is absolutely natural, and there is no reason why a natural process that you are equipped to undertake should hurt. If it does hurt then it could be because:

  • You’re not holding or positioning your baby properly
  • You have cracked nipples
  • You have thrush

All of these issues can be dealt with, and breastfeeding will not be painful. Consult your doctor if breastfeeding continues to hurt.

Myth 7: My nipples are flat, so I can’t breastfeed

Fact: Every human body is different, and nipples also come in many shapes, colours and sizes. There’s nothing to worry about if you have flat nipples. As long as you ensure that your baby can latch onto the breast properly within the first hour or day, breastfeeding will be possible and get easier with time.

Myth 8: Babies do not need breast milk once they start solid foods

Fact: You are supposed to start introducing your baby to solid foods after six months, but this does not mean that your baby doesn’t need breast milk. The baby can take any time between 12-18 months to get used to solid foods, so you will have to breastfeed him or her even if you start weaning. The nutritional value of breast milk decreases after 18 months, so you can stop breastfeeding after that.

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References

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics [internet] Illinois, United States; Benefits of Breastfeeding.
  2. National Health Service [Internet]. UK; Benefits of Breastfeeding: Your pregnancy and baby guide
  3. National Institutes of Health; [Internet]. U.S. National Library of Medicine. What are the benefits of breastfeeding?
  4. World Health Organization [Internet]. Geneva (SUI): World Health Organization; Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health: Breastfeeding
  5. United Nations Children's Fund [Internet] London (UK): UNICEF UK Benefits of Breastfeeding
  6. Better health channel. Department of Health and Human Services [internet]. State government of Victoria; Breastfeeding - deciding when to stop
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