Breastfeeding: A ‘miracle’ drug

A well-known fact in the field of public health is the key role a mother plays in maintaining the health of her family, and its impact on the economic prosperity of a given community. As a mother I am often amazed and overwhelmed with this responsibility.

This is not to diminish the absolutely crucial role that fathers play in the lives of their children, not to mention adoptive parents, grandparents, teachers, aunts, uncles and other care providers. But let’s face it; a biological mother is charged with physically housing and sustaining her baby in her own body for almost a year.

The baby is literally dependent on the life-giving cells of mama. If mama is unhealthy, eats, drinks, or otherwise consumes substances that are harmful, this can affect baby both short-term and long-term.

This amazing responsibility does not cease at birth. In almost all cases, the mom is designed perfectly to provide nourishment for baby, not by buying formula and mixing a bottle, but right from her own body, for months and in some cases years. This life-liquid (breast milk) has been undervalued by our society over recent decades, while in other cultures and times breastfeeding is not only the norm, it is celebrated. After all, it saves lives and is, in some cases, a “miracle drug.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) recommends exclusively breastfeeding for at least the first six months of baby’s life. There are so many reasons to justify this recommendation I won’t have enough space to mention them all, but here are a few:

Breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight infections; it also can affect insulin levels in the blood, which may make breast-fed babies less likely to develop diabetes and obesity. And if this is not enough, think of the money breastfeeding saves, for your family and your nation. At the household level, breast milk is free — absolutely free.

A recent cost analysis study published in the Journal Pediatrics found that hundreds of lives and billions of dollars would be saved each year in the U.S. if 90 percent of mothers breastfed the first 6 months of their babies’ lives.* The findings suggest that there are many costly illnesses each year from health problems that breast-feeding may help prevent. These include stomach viruses, ear infections, asthma, juvenile diabetes, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and more.

At the individual level, studies show that women who breastfeed lose their pregnancy weight gain faster than those who don’t, and that breastfeeding benefits mother-child bonding and imprinting.

Yet only about 43 percent of U.S. mothers breastfeed for six months, and only 12 percent follow the APA guidelines recommending that babies receive only breast milk for the first six months. The rate is even lower here in the Rio Grande Valley.

We can’t and shouldn’t blame mothers for this. I struggled to breastfeed my first child and received absolutely no support from the local hospital where he was born. I didn’t have an extended family living here at that time, so my husband and I muddled through. As a working mother, I also lacked support for breastfeeding when I returned to the office. My experience with my second and third child was better, but mostly because I had learned how to reach out for help and support.

I can’t imagine being a single, working mother and trying to breastfeed, yet know it is the best option. Even with the understanding and help of my husband, it was challenging but so rewarding! If I mess up as a parent, and believe me I do, I can always be proud that my kids had this good start.

Here in the Valley we moved away from breastfeeding, partly due to marketing and pressure from formula companies, its association with the “old ways from Mexico,” and in large part because our medical community has not been the most supportive. However, there are some encouraging signs. Locally, our hospitals finally have lactation consultants. Nationally, under a provision enacted by the Joint Commission, a hospital accrediting agency, hospitals may be evaluated on their efforts to ensure that newborns are fed only breast milk before they’re sent home.

And the government’s health care overhaul requires large employers to provide private places for working mothers to pump breast milk.

If we know breastfeeding is beneficial to mothers and children here in the relatively “abundant” U.S., imagine the need in countries where poverty and hunger are rampant and access to clean water to safely mix formula is limited? Why such a low rate of breastfeeding? Decades of marketing by large manufactures of products — yes, powdered milk, formula, bottle supplies — a billions of dollar industry has sprung up around discouraging breastfeeding in order to profit off of dependence on formula. After all, the window is short — hours really — for establishing a healthy pattern of latching on and breastfeeding and if hospitals, WIC, pediatricians and grocery stores are literally pushing free samples and coupons and supplies on new mothers while they are still pregnant, the battle is often lost before the baby is even born.

I remember carrying home bags of free formula bottles from the hospital, even though I insisted I was exclusively breast feeding. When I struggled getting my milk supply established, I was literally pressured by pediatricians and obstetricians to supplement with formula and not worry about it. Little did I understand that those free formula samples, and the hospital bottle feedings despite my objections, were undermining the very natural and healthy process of my body slowly building up a supply based on my baby’s demand or need for milk.

If you are planning to become a mother in the future, please consider the benefits of breastfeeding. If you are already a mother of older children, whether or not you breastfed, there is still plenty you can do to influence the health of your children. As a mother I would never try to make a parent feel guilty for any decision they made in the past — I’ve been down that road myself and realize the huge barriers we all face when it comes to breastfeeding.

We all want our children to be healthy, and to enjoy a long life. We have so much potential for positive influence beyond the womb and infant stages of our kids. Our wise shopping for food that is life-giving (fruits, vegetables, whole grains); our careful monitoring of what our children eat (less fast-food, soda and junk food) and our encouragement of healthy activities (turn off the TV and get outside and play) and healthy, undistracted conversation are a few examples of healthy parenting.

Ultimately, our own choices around health have more influence than any lecture we can give our children. Allowing them to see us not as perfect but as grown-ups trying to make healthy choices is vital to their development.

During Breastfeeding Month, let’s celebrate the positive influence mothers can have on their children’s health, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)

*Bartick, Pediatrics, 2010

For more information and support for Breastfeeding, go to the Infant and Family Nutrition Agency Facebook page or call Magally Ramos at (956) 561-6455.