Breastfeeding: For baby’s healthy growth and mother’s safety [Archives:2007/1048/Health]

May 7 2007

Dr. Mohammed Al-Alie
For The Yemen Times

It goes without saying that breastfeeding is an unequalled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants. It also is an integral part of the reproductive process, with important implications for the health of mothers.

A recent review of evidence has shown that, on a population basis, exclusive breastfeeding (depending only on breast milk without any other type of food or milk) for six months is the optimal way to feed infants. Thereafter, infants should receive complementary food with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.

Breast milk is much better than artificial milk because it keeps a baby growing properly and helps mothers follow necessary instructions for their reproductive health.

Breast milk is the natural first food that should be given to babies because it provides all of the energy and nutrients an infant needs in the first months of life. It continues to provide up to half or more of a child's nutritional needs during the second half of its first year and up to one-third during the second year of life.

Thanks to its contents, breast milk promotes sensory and cognitive development in addition to protecting infants against infectious diseases such as gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestine) and septicemia (bacteria and its toxins in the blood), as well as several chronic diseases, because breast milk has antibodies and immunological cells that kill bacterial agents emerging in the body.

Exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant mortality that may occur as a result of common childhood illnesses such as diarrhea or pneumonia. It also helps bring about quicker recovery from illness.

Breast milk also has anti-allergic properties other types of milk are incapable of providing; thus, infants who feed exclusively on human milk are much less susceptible to allergic diseases such as infant eczema (a rash and itching on all or part of the body) and allergic rhinitis (inflammation of the nose due to allergy).

Additionally, breastfeeding infants are less subject to rickets, a disease occurring as a result of calcium shortage in the body, because breast milk contains double the vitamin D in cow milk. Infants who feed on human milk also have a sufficient amount of iron and, therefore, are farther from iron deficiency since iron in human milk is 1.5 times that of cow milk.

Mothers' benefits

Breastfeeding also has many advantages of vital importance for the heath and wellbeing of mothers. For example, it helps space children, since women who breastfeed usually become pregnant after more than six months of giving birth, whereas women who cut breastfeeding may get pregnant only a month and a half after delivery.

Breastfeeding delays menstruation and hence, helps women with family planning, which is essential for a mother's health, as well as for a child's proper growth. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancer in mothers.

Economically speaking, breastfeeding decreases family expenditures, as babies who feed on artificial milk require a considerable sum of money every month or even every week to provide milk for them. Furthermore, it boosts babies' immunity, thus making them resistant to infectious diseases. Conversely, babies fed artificially are susceptible to infectious diseases because their immunity is weak.

To enable mothers to establish and sustain exclusive breastfeeding for six months, WHO and UNICEF recommend mothers begin breastfeeding within the first hour of life. They should also breastfeed their babies exclusively; that is, their infants should receive only breast milk without any additional food or drink, not even water.

Additionally, mothers should breastfeed their babies on demand, in the sense that a baby should receive breast milk as often as it wants, day and night. In this respect, both WHO and UNICEF stress that mothers shouldn't use any type of bottles, teats or pacifiers during breastfeeding in order to make feeding ultimately exclusive.

Breast milk secrets and benefits

Upon this explanation, one may question the secret of breastfeeding and breast milk, which provides babies the required vitamins and fat, as well as helps them have healthy and well-balanced growth. Doctors confirm that breast milk contains a substance called colostrum, a secretion produced in the breast within the first three to five days. The substance is lemon yellow and viscous with fluid alkaline.

Colostrum is followed by transitional milk and then mature milk, which is secreted between the 10th to 20th day after delivery. Colostrum is composed of protein, fat and minerals. Although these substances may be in cow milk, the balance and way they are combined makes it impossible for any other type of milk to acquire breast milk's quality.

Additionally, colostrum contains immunoglobulins (immunity antibodies that kill bacterial agents in the body). It also has laxative properties and thus helps in the passage of meconium (feces present in the baby's abdomen before birth obtained during feeding through the mother's umbilical cord). It further prevents hyperbilirubinemia (increased bilirubin in the blood, which causes toxicity in the body).

The significance of breastfeeding lies in the fact that the fat content in the final amount of milk in each feeding is three times that of the first. This helps the baby achieve satiety and thus prevents overfeeding and obesity in breastfed infants.

In a joint statement entitled, “Protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding,” WHO and UNICEF aim to increase awareness of the critical role of health services in promoting breastfeeding, as well as describe what should be done to provide mothers with appropriate information and support.

10 steps for successful breastfeeding

Every facility providing maternity services and care for newborn infants should:

1. Have a written breastfeeding policy routinely communicated to all health care staff.

2. Train all health care staff in skills necessary to implement this policy.

3. Inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breastfeeding.

4. Help mothers begin breastfeeding within half an hour of birth.

5. Show mothers how to breastfeed and maintain lactation, even if they are separated from their infants.

6. Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breast milk, unless medically indicated.

7. Practice rooming-in (allowing mothers and infants to remain together) 24 hours a day.

8. Encourage breastfeeding on demand.

9. Give no artificial teats or pacifiers (also called dummies or soothers) to breastfeeding infants.

10. Foster the establishment of breastfeeding support groups and refer mothers to them upon discharge from the hospital or clinic.