Imagine a food that is ideal nutritionally, is inexpensive and prevents many diseases. Wouldn’t you expect such a product to be used universally? Guess again!
Breast milk is all of the above, and more. Sadly, only one child in seven born in the USA is given just breast milk at six months of age, which is what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. It is especially sad that one third of all moms never give their babies access to the best possible food.
I had the chance to visit an obstetrical clinic in Egypt. I asked one of the new mothers if she was nursing her baby. “Oh, yes, we all breastfeed for seven months!” she exclaimed. “That is what the Qur’an says we must do. Many women continue to nurse longer.”
Why don’t mothers in the USA nurse their children, since it is best for themselves and their babies? Many forces act against breastfeeding. Manufacturers market artificial formula intensely to pregnant women and new mothers. When you go down the aisles of a supermarket you see all sorts of formulas and bottles, but little or nothing for breastfeeding. Of course, one of the advantages of breastfeeding is that the new mother doesn’t need to buy anything.
Let’s face it; our society is unfriendly for breastfeeding moms. Many new mothers need to return to work six weeks or less after giving birth. Few workplaces have provision for women to pump their breasts, let alone for the baby to be nearby so he can nurse. Until society becomes nursing-friendly, many babies can only get six weeks of this ideal food. Fortunately, the first month of nursing is the most important.
Another reason that women are turning away from breastfeeding is that we view breasts as sex objects. Recently a former Durango woman was thrown off an airplane in Vermont for breastfeeding. Even though she was nursing discretely, the flight attendant insisted that she cover her nursing baby with a blanket.
Breast milk has advantages for both baby and mother. The breastfed baby is less likely to get sick from diarrhea or respiratory diseases because he receives immunity from his mother. He is less susceptible to allergic problems such as asthma and eczema. Recent research suggests that he will even be slightly more intelligent than if he had bottle-fed. Nursing lessens his chances of getting serious diseases such as diabetes, lymphoma, certain bowel diseases and one type of arthritis. He is less likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome. Finally, his chances of obesity are much less if he nurses.
A healthy baby is wonderful here, but critical in poorer countries where five million children die of infectious diseases annually. Couples will not choose to have smaller families until they can be relatively sure that their children will live until adulthood. Paradoxically, survival of children is important for slowing population growth.
Advantages to the mom are also significant. Breastfeeding diminishes her risk of anemia since nursing decreases postpartum blood loss. Women who have breastfed their babies are less likely to develop breast, ovarian and uterine cancers. Losing “baby fat” is easier for a nursing woman, making obesity less likely.
The psychological advantages of breastfeeding are very significant. Breastfeeding promotes intimacy between mother and infant. This is partly because the baby’s suckling releases oxytocin, the “hormone of love.” Oxytocin helps bond the mother to her baby.
Other hormonal effects of nursing are also important. Another hormone, prolactin, stimulates the breasts to make milk. It also allows the new mother’s ovaries to rest, making her much less fertile while nursing. This natural family planning has helped to regulate fertility for millennia. Worldwide, breastfeeding is the most widely used temporary contraceptive method.
This relative infertility has been studied extensively and found to rival the effectiveness of modern contraceptive methods. Named LAM (for Lactational Amenorrhea Method), it is 98 % effective if the mom meets three requirements. The baby must be breastfed almost exclusively, be less than six months old, and the mother must not have resumed menstruation.
Breastfeeding is good for the environment, too. There are no cans or bottles to dispose of, and fossil fuels are not needed to ship artificial formula long distances. No methane-emitting cows need be milked as to make artificial formulas.
For years I have said that inferior products have supplanted two superior ones—drinking water and breast milk. Now industry is marketing water extensively. I hope that breast milk will regain its rightful place in human nutrition.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2007
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