Not many things are sweeter than a mother cuddling her baby at the breast, caressing her as she wraps her tiny fingers around her own, or as he gently plays with her hair while smiling into her eyes. Mothers have joyfully nursed their infants since the beginning, but now research proves the many benefits of breastfeeding.
The first “milk” a mother makes is a thick substance called colostrum, otherwise known as “liquid gold.” Colostrum is very rich in nutrients and antibodies, and helps the baby’s digestive system begin to function. Between the third and fifth day after birth, the mother’s milk comes in. It is thinner than colostrum but still has the mother’s antibodies and the perfect combination of protein, sugar, fat and water. The antibodies protect baby from illness, and studies show breastfed babies are less likely to develop allergies, meningitis, respiratory and stomach problems, eczema, diarrhea or childhood leukemia. Human milk has even been shown to kill cancer cells.
For the baby, breastfeeding provides not only nutrition, but also comfort, security and reassurance. Sometimes babies want to nurse because they are upset, teaching them to go to their mothers for comfort and helping them develop emotionally. The action of sucking gives them solace and also aids in the development of the jaws, teeth and facial structure, as well as aiding in speech development.
As a mother nurses, she makes secretory immunoglobulin A, which forms a protective layer on mucous membranes in baby’s throat, nose and intestines. The extraordinary thing is this substance is specially tailored to what the mother has been exposed to, so that each baby is uniquely protected.
Brain research now shows that breastfeeding helps ensure smarter babies. A study of 17,000 infants (from birth to age two-and-one-half) shows breastfeeding “significantly improves cognitive development.” A study of 4,000 children at age five shows that kids who were breastfed had higher scores on vocabulary tests. Research shows breastfed preemies are less likely to have high blood pressure as teenagers. Breastfeeding also helps babies to avoid diabetes, high cholesterol, Crohn’s disease and colitis. Scientists have deduced that breastfeeding at one month cuts the risk of SIDS in half. Seven studies show it that reduces a child’s risk of becoming obese as a teen or adult.
For the mother, nursing after birth stimulates the uterus to contract back to its normal size and causes less bleeding as well as reducing the mother’s stress level. Mothers who forego nursing have a higher risk of postpartum depression. Nursing actually triggers the release of oxytocin, which promotes relaxation and initiates wonderful times of bonding, which is one of the great joys of breastfeeding and one of mother’s favorite benefits.
Women who breastfeed have a reduced rate of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Besides that, it helps a woman lose her “baby fat.” Those who breastfeed exclusively for more than three months tend to lose more weight and when a woman continues beyond four to six months, the weight continues to drop off. Beyond that, it is so convenient (no more stumbling around in the dark trying to disinfect bottles, mix formula, get it at just the right temperature, etc). Merely put the baby to the breast and relax.
Breastfeeding also helps the environment. There are fewer formula cans and bottles in the trash. If mothers breastfed, it would save $2.2 billion every year just in the U.S. Not only the bottles and formula would be unnecessary, but breastfed babies need fewer prescriptions, sick care visits and hospitalizations. Research shows if 90 percent of women breastfed for six months, 1,000 infant deaths could be prevented. Seeing all the benefits of breastfeeding makes one realize the joys of motherhood. Every person can support a mother.
Opinion by Laurie Stilwell