GP: Why breastfeeding is always best for babies
The World Health Organisation says only 40 per cent of infants under 6 months of age around the globe are exclusively breast-fed. The WHO also says that if nearly all children in this age group were fed via this method, an estimated 820,000 lives would be saved each year.
The benefits of breastfeeding for babies are numerous, and well-known. They include:
* Reduction in infection rates – babies who are breast-fed have lower rates of infection in the first few weeks and months of life. This is largely because protective antibodies are passed via the mother's milk into the baby's blood stream. Studies show that these babies have fewer chest infections, ear infections, diarrhoea and vomiting and are less likely to be admitted to hospital.
* Breast milk is the perfect nutrition for babies – the composition of breast milk is ideal for your baby; it provides all the nutrients required for healthy growth, in exactly the right quantities. It is not possible to replicate breast milk exactly in a formula or man-made milk. Breast milk will also adapt to your baby's needs as it grows.
* Babies who have been breast-fed have lower rates of certain diseases as they get older, including obesity, eczema, asthma and diabetes.
* Breastfeeding is convenient, free and accessible to everyone – in many countries in the world, getting access to not only formula milk powder, but also the clean water and sterilised bottles required to administer it, is almost impossible, and often unaffordable. Breastfeeding on the other hand is available universally – without the need for any equipment or preparation.
* "Exclusive" breastfeeding (ie solely breastfeeding, with no other form of nutrition for the baby) is a good form of contraception up until about 6 months of age – this factor is less important in New Zealand, where contraception is readily available, but can play a vital role in family planning in other parts of the world.
* Breastfeeding reduces the likelihood of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). We don't fully understand why this is, but it is likely related to the lower rates of infection in breast-fed babies.
* Breastfeeding is also good for mums – we now know that mothers who have breast-fed at least one baby have lower rates of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type-2 diabetes and postnatal depression.
* Breastfeeding can promote emotional bonding between mother and baby.
So it would seem very obvious that, where possible, breastfeeding is the best choice for both mother and baby – and is certainly the choice that I have promoted to families that I have worked with over the years. However, I think it's also important to recognise that this feeding method doesn't work for everyone – I have had three children and didn't manage to "exclusively" breastfeed any of them, much as I wanted to.
I armed myself with good support, and all the information I could – yet, it still seemed I couldn't produce enough milk for my growing babies. I am not alone with this – my sisters all had similar experiences, as have many patients I have spoken to over the years. The guilt I felt, and the sense of somehow having "failed" in this essential role, was awful – and I know from other mothers that this can be enough to tip them into a spiral of depression and anxiety.
Luckily, we live in a country that does have good access to support and information. I would encourage mothers to make full use of this – midwives, plunket nurses, family members and friends, as well as other mums, can all help provide advice and support if needed.
And if you do have to either supplement or top-up your breast milk with formula (either as a one-off, or an ongoing solution to problematic breastfeeding) please don't beat yourself up – there are many, many aspects to being a wonderful parent, of which breastfeeding your baby is only one.
For more information, visit plunket.org.nz
Dr Cathy Stephenson is a GP and forensic medical examiner.