Every new mom wants to give her babe the best possible start in life. And it turns out, all babe really needs to score a boost is you. Breastfeeding your newborn exclusively offers her numerous benefits, including natural protection against infection and a jumpstart in sensory and cognitive development.
When a mother gives birth, her body does something incredible: It begins to produce sustenance for her child. Although it may seem like not much milk is flowing, the yellowish fluid that your breasts secrete in the days following delivery is exactly what your newborn needs. Colostrum, as it’s called, is a special first food for baby that comes in before your milk does. It’s low in fat and high in carbohydrates, protein and antibodies. Michelle Ruffalo, LM, CPM, a midwife at Labor of Love Birth Center in Lutz, Florida, says, “Colostrum—or ‘liquid gold’—is the perfect food for a newborn.” It strengthens baby’s immune system not just for the time she is nursing but for her entire life, she explains.
In fact, studies suggest that colostrum acts as a natural vaccine for baby. It’s rich in white blood cells as well as immunoglobulin A (IgA), which coats the lining of baby’s intestines and mucous membranes in the lungs and throat (the places that are most susceptible to infection or potential allergies). Studies show that breastfed babies have fewer ear infections as infants and a lower risk of developing diabetes or obesity as adults. Additionally, breast milk acts as a form of protection against allergies, including skin conditions such as eczema.
The skin-to-skin contact that mom and baby experience during a feeding builds the foundation for a lasting bond. Further-more, when a mother’s milk “lets down,” a hormone called oxytocin is released, which bonds mother to child and child to mother. Ruffalo explains: “When baby nurses, mom’s brain gets the signal to release oxytocin,” she says. “This results in a rush of the ‘love hormone.’ The release of the chemical in massive surges enhances a mother’s feelings of trust, love and affection.”
In addition to promoting warm, fuzzy feelings, oxytocin stimulates uterine contraction. These mild cramping sensations you’ll feel in the early days of nursing serve to prevent postpartum hemorrhage, as well as facilitate the uterus’s return to its pre-pregnancy state.
Speaking of getting back to your before- baby body, breastfeeding can help. A nursing mom uses an extra 500 or so calories a day, jumpstarting the weight loss process. Her metabolic profile is often improved as well, meaning she’ll have an easier time keeping the weight off in the long run. A svelter figure sooner isn’t the only perk, however. Mothers who exclusively breastfeed typically enjoy a delayed return of their menstrual cycles. While formula-feeding moms may receive a visit from Aunt Flo as early as six weeks postpartum, nursing moms can go without for six months or more. This break from periods allows moms to maintain their iron stores, reducing their risk of anemia, and also helps ensure a healthy spacing between children. (Though, it must be said: Using breastfeeding as your sole source of birth control is not a guaranteed way to prevent a pregnancy. If you’re not yet ready for another bun in your oven, talk to your care provider about the most effective contraception options for you.)
While the short-term pros are plentiful, long-term advantages abound. Lactating moms enjoy a reduced risk of certain cancers, including ovarian, uterine and breast cancer, and they’re also less likely to develop osteoporosis. Additionally, new moms with a history of gestational diabetes tend to experience lower blood sugar when they breastfeed after birth.
Beyond physiological factors, there are practical perks to breastfeeding as well. For starters, it’s cost-effective. The milk itself is free, and even after accounting for expenses such as nipple balm, a nursing pillow and a breast pump (now covered under the Affordable Care Act), it’s a pretty good deal. There’s no searching for a way to warm baby’s bottle when you’re out and about, and there’s no need to fumble around the kitchen in the middle of the night measuring water and formula. Your child’s next meal is readily available, and it’s always the right temperature. Plus, there are no dishes to wash afterward.
Another bonus that’s not often taken into consideration is attendance at the office after returning to work. Because breastfed babies have improved immunity, they tend to get sick less frequently. And that means moms who work outside the home have to take fewer days off to stay home with an under-the-weather little one.
Without a doubt, breastfeeding is ideal for both mom and baby, but the truth is, it’s not always easy. Achieving a successful latch can be difficult in the beginning, and nursing around the clock is exhausting. Serving as baby’s sole source of sustenance can seem like a big responsibility (and it is), so it’s imperative that you build a support system to lean on when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Have your partner attend a breastfeeding class with you, so he’s clued in on proper techniques and common trials. Get the name and number of your lactation consultant before you leave the hospital in case you have any questions once you’re back at home. (You will!) After you get the hang of it, try pumping extra breast milk, so your partner can take the night shift occasionally or a sitter can keep baby for the afternoon. For additional breastfeeding resources, mom-to-mom support and positive reinforcement, visit La Leche League International, a breastfeeding advocacy organization, at llli.org.
Remember to approach breastfeeding with realistic expectations and a healthy dose of determination. Your persistence and dedication will pay off not only in the near future but also in the years to come.