Dr. Victor S. Sierpina
You just had a healthy baby. Congratulations! In these days when many women struggle with infertility and challenges getting pregnant, a baby is a truly wonderful gift, as it always has been.
By the way, check out Dr. Steve Pratt’s latest book “SuperFoods Rx for Pregnancy” to prepare for and have a healthy pregnancy and baby.
Now that labor is done, the work really begins.
By now, you and everyone else likely know about the benefits of breast-feeding.
The human breast, like that of all mammals, was perfectly designed to create optimal nutrition for the vulnerable newborn.
Breast milk has everything in it needed for a new baby to grow and thrive. This includes calories derived from healthy fats and essential proteins, minerals and vitamins needed to grow a healthy brain, body and immune system in your baby.
Breast-fed babies are known to have fewer ear infections, allergies, asthma, obesity and other problems that are common in bottle-fed babies.
Perhaps as a baby boomer who was not breast-fed, I have a particular interest in this topic. My mother thought nursing was not in keeping with scientific medicine in the ’50s and even considered it a bit “vulgar.” So I missed out and dutifully got my tonsils and adenoids out at 6, possibly because of immune issues because of not getting the benefits of breast milk.
Such surgical procedures were very common back then and have become much less common. One cannot help but wonder if the cultural withdrawal from breast-feeding of infants was somehow a reason.
I am a family doctor who has delivered and cared for thousands of babies. I regularly counsel couples about the benefits of breast-feeding. I know the struggles new mothers and their families face in our modern age when it comes to breast-feeding.
While for other societies, there may rarely be an option to breast-feeding, formula-fed babies have become our societal norm.
Though the increase in breast-feeding during the last few decades has thankfully risen to almost 70 percent, most moms feed for less than six months.
This is the recommended time to breast-feed by the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics for health of both baby and mom.
The rate is much worse among certain populations. African-American mothers lag 15 percent or more behind Hispanics and Caucasians in breast-feeding rates, according to a report by the surgeon general.
Breast-feeding isn’t just good for babies; it is good for moms. It reduces their body fat and weight after pregnancy, increases their emotional bonding with the baby and decreases risks of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers later in life.
With so much knowledge about the benefits of breast-feeding, why don’t more women breast-feed and longer? In my experience, women who birth at home, women whose mothers or grandmothers breast-fed, who are strongly supported by their husbands or the father of the baby, who are past their teens and are better educated tend to be more successful with breast-feeding.
Social and cultural support is huge. A father who is willing to get up at night to change diapers, bring the baby to the mother or feed with pumped breast milk is a huge, often unrecognized key to successful breast-feeding.
Having a workplace that allows women to pump breast milk after they return to work is essential and, in my view, ethically required.
Having a baby-friendly hospital that doesn’t automatically dispense commercial formula is important. When friends and relatives express concerns about the baby “not getting enough to eat,” new moms are often troubled, as they can’t measure exactly the breast milk in ounces compared to a bottle of formula.
They often cave in to bottle-feeding as a supplement or even a replacement for breast-feeding.
This is why social support from fathers, other family, friends, a lactation consultant, the doctor and volunteer organizations such as La Leche League is vital.
There are a few known reasons why women shouldn’t breast-feed, including those with AIDS, galactosemia, on chemotherapy for cancer, taking certain prescription or street drugs and a few others.
However, a recent statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics encouraged breast-feeding even for women on most prescription medications.
Women are designed by nature to nurse their newborns. This ought be their natural expectation for themselves and their babies.
We need to support this most natural healthful form of nutrition, right from the start.
La Leche League International — leche means milk — has local lactation consultants and volunteers available by phone or monthly meetings for those having problems with breast-feeding or who would like to meet and talk with others who also are breast-feeding to share stories and experiences.
So when it comes to early childhood nutrition, remember — breast is best. August was Breast-Feeding Awareness month.
We need to keep this awareness going year-round. Support those you know who are breast-feeding in every way you can. Don’t sabotage our children’s future health by uninformed or thoughtless comments.
And for you breastaurant fans, remember with gratitude where good health and good nutrition starts. Thank your mama.
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.