Lizzy de Vries
When raising a child, parents are forced to make countless choices, the outcome of which may or may not improve the wellbeing their child. Often one of the first of these questions addresses the issue of breastfeeding. The continual debate over whether or not mothers must breastfeed has inspired numerous studies and publications. Many of these studies have informed the public that while breastfeeding an infant is a customary and natural practice, it is not one which is absolutely necessary. While this information may provide relief to non-believers and working mothers, one cannot ignore the countless benefits which breastfeeding can provide. Not only is breastfeeding beneficial for babies, but for mothers as well.
The ingestion of human milk is crucial to the health of a baby. The immune system of a child does not reach its full strength until around the age of five, but many of the components of breast milk can help infants and young children to avoid disease in several ways. (7) The first of these components is secretory IgA, an antibody found in the gut and respiratory system of adults, and the most abundant type of antibody in breast milk. When the mother comes in contact with a pathogen, or disease-causing agent, she synthesizes antibodies specific to that agent only. These antibodies are passed on through breast milk, and the baby receives protection from the pathogens within its environment. Secretory IgA also fights disease without causing inflammation which might hurt healthy tissue. In addition to IgA antibodies, immune cells consisting of white blood cells, or leukocytes, are found in breast milk and help to fight infection. The most common milk leukocytes are neutrophils, which act as phagocytes and absorb harmful microorganisms in the infant's gut, and macrophages, which manufacture lysozyme, an enzyme capable of destroying the cell walls of certain bacteria. (7)
The health benefits for the breastfed infant go beyond the building of a strong basic immune system. Breastfeeding can provide protection against allergies, asthma, exzema, immune system cancers such as lymphoma, bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and celiac sprue, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. (3) The mental and physical development of infants have also been proven to be affected by breastfeeding. Studies verify that infants who are breastfed begin to grow faster, then reduce the speed of their growth around their first birthday. The infant's brain and retinal development is assisted by DHA (docosohexaenoic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid), two ingredients of human milk. (3)
While the intake of the components of human milk is clearly advantageous to the health of the young child, breastfeeding can provide health benefits to the mother as well. Initially, the sucking of the infant causes recurrent bursts of oxytocin to be released from the mother's pituitary gland. The release of oxytocin causes the uterus to contract, protecting the mother from postpartum hemorrhage. (3) In the case of mothers with diabetes, those who breastfeed tend to need less insulin or medication, and may be protected from the progression of their disease, as a result of the efficient use of calories during breastfeeding. Milk production expends 200-500 calories a day, so mothers who breastfeed may find pleasure in a more rapid and lasting weight loss. (3)
Most beneficial to the health of the breastfeeding mother is the delay of the return of ovulation and menstruation. Delayed menstruation decreases
the mother's iron losses and risk of iron deficiency anemia. (3) More importantly, the prolonged suppression of ovulation by an extended period of breastfeeding has been linked to long-term health benefits. One British study has shown that for each child carried, the risk of developing breast cancer by the age of 70 was reduced by 7 percent. For every year a woman breastfed, the risk of breast cancer fell by an additional 4.3 percent. (9) A reduced number of occurrences of ovarian and uterine cancers in mothers who breastfeed for at least six months throughout their life time has also been observed. (3) Another more recent study, published in The Lancet, concluded that the number of breast cancer cases in British women would be just half as large if they gave birth to six children and breast-fed them until they were two or three years old. Dr. Gillian Reves, a co-author of this study, said, "If women in the West were to breast-feed each of their children for an extra six months, this could prevent five percent of breast-cancers each year." (9)
In addition to the various health benefits, scientific evidence illustrates that breastfeeding is emotionally beneficial to the relationship between mother and child. The mother-child bond is strengthened by the combination of the hormonal effects of breastfeeding on a woman and the skin-to-skin contact and intimacy. One study found that in a developing country where there is a significant rate of the abandonment of children by their mothers, a smaller number of mothers abandoned their babies when breastfeeding rates were increased. (3) Some studies argue that the bond between mother and child is enhanced even more when an infant is breastfed because the infant is given greater opportunity to become familiarized with its mother's characteristic odor. After just a few days of breastfeeding, infants react preferentially to the odors of their own mother when exposed to these odors and similar odors from an unfamiliar lactating female. (6) Infants who are breastfed have also been found to be capable of identifying their mother by her breast odor alone. (1)
While I am sympathetic and understanding of those women who, for various reasons, are unable to breastfeed their babies, it seems to me that if one has the option of deciding whether or not to breastfeed, the choice is clear. In my research I have come across numerous health and emotional benefits, for the mother and particularly for the child. The decision to breastfeed would not only be the choice which I feel would be best for my child, but also the most personally satisfying. The opportunity to provide my child with additional protection from disease is one I could not pass up, and the chance to develop a more intimate bond seems to me to be irresistible.
1) Cernoch, Jennifer M. and Richard H. Porter. "Recognition of Maternal Axillary Odors by Infants." Child Development, Vol. 56 (Dec. 1985), pp 1593-1598
4) "More U.S. Women Breastfeeding Babies for Longer Durations." Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr. 1981), pp 86
5) Macklin, Madge Thurlow. "Human Breast Cancer and the Milk Factor." Science, New Series, Vol. 104, No. 2694 (Aug. 16, 1946), pp. 168-169
6) Makin, Jennifer W. "Attractiveness of Lactating Females' Breast Odors to Neonates." Child Development, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Aug. 1989), pp. 803-810