World Breastfeeding Week
This week is National Breastfeeding Week, which aims to raise awareness of the many benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child. It is an important initiative, particularly in light of the fact that Ireland has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe: Only about 40% of new mothers in Ireland initiate breastfeeding and many give up before the child is four months old.
Breast milk is a specific food, which has been designed and perfected by nature to provide exactly the right components needed for the growth and development of human infants. Studies have repeatedly shown that breastfed babies are afforded protection against a wide range of problems, not just during infancy, but also for years afterwards, and even into adulthood.
Breastfed babies are significantly less likely to develop allergies than babies fed with formula milk, and they are also less likely to develop illnesses such as chest and ear infections and tummy bugs. This is because at birth, a baby has no functional immune system of his own: the mother’s body makes milk especially designed to provide protection from the specific infections which both mother and baby come into contact with.
Breastfeeding significantly reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (cot death), and older children who were breastfed are less susceptible to dental caries and are less likely to need orthodontic treatments. They also have higher verbal performance and IQ scores. During adulthood, people who were breastfed are less likely to develop obesity and diabetes. They are also less susceptible to infection by Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that causes gastritis, peptic ulcer and gastric cancer.
For the mother, breastfeeding significantly reduces the risk of developing osteoporosis and breast, ovarian and cervical cancers, not to mention getting back in shape faster. Breastfeeding burns at least an extra 600 calories per day, so if you have put on extra weight during pregnancy this will help you to shift it much more easily.
Despite these numerous benefits for both mother and baby, there seems to be a perception that breastfeeding is difficult or that it can tie you down. However, it is actually far easier, cheaper, and altogether more convenient than buying formula, sterilizing bottles, and listening to a crying baby while the milk warms.
Breastfeeding means that you don’t have to plan ahead when going out: you always have exactly the right amount of milk with you, at exactly the right temperature. Even the disturbed nights are so much less difficult when you don’t have to get up to make a bottle: Just pick up the baby and hop back into bed.
Even if you are planning on going back to work, to breastfeed your baby for the first few weeks (or even just the first few days) is the greatest gift you can give, both for your baby and for yourself. If you want to continue breastfeeding when you return to work you can give bottles of either expressed or formula milk while you’re away, and continue to breastfeed at other times. If you want to do this it is worth introducing a daily bottle of expressed milk at around four weeks, since this is the ideal time for a baby to master feeding from both breast and bottle. Of course for those women who, for a variety of reasons, cannot breastfeed or find breastfeeding extremely difficult, it is reassuring that babies can thrive on formula milk.
If you do choose to breastfeed there are a number of herbal remedies that can help. For example, herbal ointments containing calendula or chamomile are soothing and healing for sore and cracked nipples, and are also safe for baby; and surprising relief from engorged breasts comes in the shape of a slightly bruised cabbage leaf in each cup of your bra!
Internally, Fennel tea increases the quantity of breast milk, and some of the constituents actually pass into the breast milk, helping to calm the baby’s digestion and ease colic. Nettle tea can help to produce a plentiful supply of rich, nourishing breast milk, and sage is useful for reducing the quantity of milk during weaning. Your local Medical Herbalist can provide an individually tailored blend of herbs together with advice about nutrition, to help support you and your little one on your breastfeeding journey.