**By Lauren Athay, MD, FAAP**
As a soon-to-be pediatrician, I went into motherhood knowing the benefits of breastfeeding and was dedicated to nursing my newborn son. Breastfeeding, after all, is a very natural process. Babies are born with a sucking reflex. The hormone changes after birth make a woman lactate. Breastfeeding would be automatic, or so I thought. Boy, oh boy, was I wrong.
It took a sleepy infant who was losing weight and had dry diapers to teach me that a sucking reflex doesn’t equal a good latch and hormones don’t guarantee a good supply of breast milk.
With stubborn persistence and the help of a wonderful pediatrician and lactation consultant, I gradually gained the skill and confidence I needed to breastfeed. Although my son required formula supplementation, I’m proud of the fact that I provided him with as much breast milk as I could during his first year.
My pediatric training taught me that “breast is best,” but my entrance into motherhood taught me that “good moms feed their babies.”
Reasons to consider breastfeeding
In my opinion, the three most compelling reasons to consider breastfeeding include:
- Nutrition – Breast milk is the perfect food for a baby during the first year of life. It contains everything a baby needs to grow. Infant formulas can’t match the unique composition of breast milk.
- Health – There are significant health benefits to breastfeeding for both baby and mom.
- Breastfed babies have fewer infections and hospitalizations because breast milk contains antibodies and other germ-fighting factors that protect infants and help develop the immune system. Breastfed babies are also at lower risk for allergies, asthma, diabetes and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
- Recovery after childbirth may be quicker for a mom who breastfeeds and her risk of obesity, diabetes, ovarian or breast cancer can be reduced.
- Economics – Not only are direct costs lower with breastfeeding (formula can cost up to $3,000 for the first year), but there are indirect savings because breastfed infants require fewer sick visits, prescriptions and hospitalizations.
Breastfeeding support is important
Few people would argue against the benefits of breast milk and more than 90 percent of new moms in Washington state initiate breastfeeding immediately after delivery. However, by three months only 46 percent are exclusively breastfeeding their infant.
These figures tell me that instead of requiring more “breast is best” education about the benefits of breastfeeding, new moms need more support to continue breastfeeding after being discharged from the hospital.
Practical knowledge can come from breastfeeding classes offered at local hospitals, trusted websites and peer support can come from family, friends and organizations such as La Leche League of Washington. An experienced pediatrician can offer basic breastfeeding skills, individualized counseling and make sure there are no medical issues interfering with the process. A lactation consultant or doula can also help monitor post-natal infant feeding, help develop a feeding plan and troubleshoot problems.
Early support is key
The current recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics is for exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age, when complementary foods are introduced, followed by continued breastfeeding until 12 months of age. One of the best predictors of achieving this goal is the quality and quantity of breastfeeding achieved by one month after birth. This highlights the need to support nursing moms in the first few weeks after birth.
What I would tell any woman considering childbirth or new mom
- Most moms can make enough milk for their infant.
- Most babies are able to successfully breastfeed.
- Breastfeeding is natural, but not always easy, particularly at the beginning.
- Relax. Trust yourself and your infant. Ask for help and seek support.
So, if you’re a woman thinking about childbirth or a new mom, I encourage you to consider breastfeeding. Regardless of what feeding option you choose, though, remember that good information and support are important!
Lauren Athay, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician with a special interest in lactation medicine. She practices at Virginia Mason Federal Way Medical Center (33501 First Way S, Federal Way, WA 98003); www.virginiamason.org/federalway.