“ …A little child, born yesterday, a thing on mother’s milk and kisses fed…” Hymn to Mercury (one of the Homeric Hymns written in the 6th century), translated from Greek by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Babies have been breastfed since the beginning of time. It is interesting to read about the history of infant feeding and how the role of breastfeeding has changed over the eras and according to the cultural expectations. There has always been a need for an alternative feeding mechanism (when the mother died or was very ill), and initially wet nurses were used to fill this need. From about 950-1800BC mothers often opted to use a wet nurse due to social conventions (it was hard to play cards during afternoon tea or wear the beautiful corsets if you were breastfeeding).1
Alternative milk sources have also been used with varying levels of success since early times. Initially only animal milk was used, but as food preservation became more successful, and chemistry evolved, scientists developed substitute infant foods which were advertised widely as the perfect infant food. (This perfect infant food initially consisted of cow’s milk, wheat, malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate!)1 Advertising campaigns in developing countries and directly to the general public did a lot of damage as it painted an ideal picture, and many moms chose formula- over breastfeeding.
So what did you base your feeding choice on? History? Cultural expectations? Need? Social conventions? Advertising? Social media? Your mother or grandmother’s choice? I would like to give you some facts, and then I hope you can make your choice based on love and evidence!
“A baby sucks a finger as instinctively as the breast – but the breast is better for the baby.” Martin H. Fischer (1879-1962)
Here are some of the benefits for your baby…
A large part of my career consists of working in the Neonatal ICU, and I have seen the wonder of breast milk for these teeny tiny humans! Although the mother’s milk is the ideal, most of these benefits are also attained if pasteurised donor breast milk is used for the babies.
Short term benefits:
- Breast milk is better tolerated by the immature bowels, and thus the volume of feeds can be increased quicker and these babies are discharged sooner from the Neonatal ICU.
- Necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) is reduced up to 6-10 times2 in prems receiving breast milk
- Breast milk may contain some beneficial factors to reduce the severity of Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP).3
- Fewer episodes of late onset sepsis4
Long term benefits: 5
- Improved Neuro-developmental outcomes in mental, motor and behavioural aspects
- Lower rates of metabolic syndrome (obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes) and thus better insulin metabolism and lower blood pressures.
Benefits in Term, healthy babies 5, 6:
Short term :
- Decrease the risk of otitis media (middle ear infection), and lower respiratory tract infections. I will not bombard you with statistics, but for illustrative purposes hear me out. Your baby’s risk for middle ear infection is 50% less if you breastfeed exclusively for more than 3 months, and 23% less with any breastfeeding! You can give your baby some of the benefits even if you are struggling… just try!
- Decreased risk for diarrhoea… up to 64% less with any breastfeeding!
- 36% decrease in the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
- Great for bonding as explained in my previous post, very convenient as it is free, always available, always clean, always the perfect temperature.
- Protective effect against allergic diseases, celiac disease and inflammatory bowel diseases
- 15-30% decrease in adolescent and adult obesity with any breastfeeding
- Lower risk of Type 1 Diabetes and childhood leukemia / lymphoma
These are only a few of the benefits that were researched in developed countries. In South Africa it has been found that the risk of a baby dying increases 10 times if a baby is not breastfed, due to the higher risk of poverty, malnutrition and HIV.
“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Mat 7:11
I have used a lot of medical terms in this blog, so I hope you see my heart through the strange words. If you are a prem-mom, then you will know all the scary conditions like sepsis, NEC and ROP very well. There are many high quality studies that prove that breast milk really is the best food for your baby for the first 4-6months. Currently the World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding until 6months, and then continuing to breastfeed until 2years or beyond to achieve the optimal growth, development and health. 7
Will you at least try to give your baby the golden liquid that your body is capable of making, even if it is only for a few months or supplemented with formula? Surround yourself with people who will support you on this journey, join a breastfeeding group and become an advocate for breastfeeding among your friends! In my next blog I will share my journey until now.
If you have any questions or comments, you are welcome to contact me and I will gladly chat with you.
- Stevens EE, Patrick TE, Pickler R; A History of Infant Feeding; J Perinat Educ. 2009 Spring; 18(2): 32–39.
- Lucas A, Cole TJ; Breast milk and neonatal necrotising enterocolitis; 1990 Dec 22-29; 336(8730):1519-23.
- Okamoto T, Shirai M, Kokubo M, Takahashi S, Kajino M, Takase M, Sakata H, Oki J; Human milk reduces the risk of retinal detachment in extremely low-birthweight infants. Pediatr Int. 2007 Dec; 49(6):894-7.
- Underwood MA; Human milk for the premature infant; Pediatr Clin North Am. 2013 Feb; 60(1): 189–207.
- Ip S, Chung M, Raman G, et al. Tufts-New England Medical Center Evidence-based Practice Center; Breastfeeding and maternal and infant health outcomes in developed countries; Evid Rep Technol Assess (Full Rep). 2007;153(153):1–186p
- American Academy of Pediatrics; Policy Statement, Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk; Pediatrics; March 2012, VOLUME 129 / ISSUE 3