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Harvard Commentaries
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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

All About Breastfeeding

September 12, 2013

By Henry H. Bernstein D.O.

During the first week of August of each year, World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated in over 120 countries. It is sponsored by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) to increase worldwide awareness and support for breastfeeding.

As we often point out to parents and families, pediatricians (ourselves included), nutritionists, and other experts have long recommended that women breastfeed their babies for at least the first six months of an infant's life. It is hoped that breastfeeding will continue until at least 12 months, if at all possible; even if only done for as short a time period as a few weeks, breastfeeding is still very good for both mom and baby. The reasons for this recommendation include:

  • Breast milk provides all the nutrition (calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals) that a baby needs for the first six months of life.
  • Breastfeeding requires close physical contact, which helps to create a special bond between a mother and her baby and can be especially soothing for babies.
  • Breast milk contains special proteins made by the mother's immune (infection-fighting) system that help to protect babies from illnesses such as ear infections (otitis media), lung infections (pneumonia), and vomiting and diarrhea (gastroenteritis).
  • Breastfeeding may help to protect against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Breast milk is easier for babies to digest, and breastfed babies tend to spit up less often.
  • Exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months may help to prevent food allergies and other medical problems, such as diabetes.
  • Breastfeeding may help with brain development and learning. Some studies suggest a relationship between IQ and breast-feeding.
  • Breastfeeding is convenient, costs less than formula, does not need to be prepared, and is always available at the right temperature.
  • The production of breast milk burns extra calories and helps women return to their pre-pregnancy weight more quickly.
  • Breastfeeding helps the mother's uterus return to its normal size more quickly after delivery.
  • Breastfeeding may reduce a woman's risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Breastfeeding also may reduce a woman's risk of breast cancer.

Although breastfeeding provides fantastic benefits to both mom and baby, it does take time, patience and support for a mother to do it successfully, and some mothers cannot breastfeed their babies for medical reasons. It is likely, however, that more mothers would successfully breastfeed their children if they had additional support from family, friends and their community. Here are some ways that everyone, male or female, young or old, can support breastfeeding:

  • Know that it takes time for a woman and baby to establish breastfeeding. Commonly, several weeks may go by before a new mother and baby are comfortable with breastfeeding. Respect a new mother's need for privacy. Call before visiting in the hospital and in the first few weeks at home; keep your visits short.
  • Lend a helping hand. Breastfed babies, like all newborns, need to eat every few hours, which means breastfeeding moms get very little sleep. You can help a new mom by offering to cook a meal, do laundry, run errands, or watch a sibling.
  • Support breastfeeding-friendly policies at work. Make sure there is a comfortable room where breastfeeding mothers can pump while at work. Encourage your employer to provide adequate maternity (and paternity) leaves.
  • Try to get comfortable. Understand that breastfeeding is a natural part of life and should not be embarrassing. Know also that breast milk is perfect nutrition for infants and also excellent for toddlers who are still interested. There is no "right" age for a child to stop breastfeeding (and start drinking cow's milk); only a mother and her child can know when they are ready.

Henry H. Bernstein, D.O. is a Senior Lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.

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