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Breastfeeding - Why Is It Important?

Mothers are encouraged to breastfeed wherever possible, however, some may decide against this whether out of necessity (e.g. suboptimal breast milk supply or painful feeding), convenience, or simply personal choice. Some mothers will choose to provide a combination of breastmilk and formula milk, which is called ‘combination feeding’.

In this article, we aim to give you the facts about breastfeeding.

The facts:

There is a widely spread perception that formula and breastmilk are equal. This could not be further from the truth. Even though the composition of formula has been refined and improved in the past decades there are properties of breastmilk that can never be imitated and are totally unique. Breastmilk is tailor-made by the mother’s body for her baby. There is no other food that is so compatible and easily digestible for a human.

The benefits are endless but to name a few:

  • It does not need to be paid for (even though we call it ‘liquid gold’)

  • It is sterile, always at the right temperature, and readily available when needed

  • It is composed of various important factors to support the baby’s health: each drop contains millions of live cells such as macrophages (to fight infections), stem cells, vitamins, antibodies, fatty acids (important for brain development), antibacterial and antiviral enzymes, hormones and growth factors, oligosaccharides and others.

  • Breastmilk lowers the baby’s risk for infections, allergies, asthma, obesity, and hematological malignancies

  • Breastfeeding lowers the mother’s risk for ovarian and breast cancer, diabetes type 2 later in life, obesity, and reduced likelihood of postnatal depression.

  • Breastmilk typically does not cause allergies, although occasionally babies have allergic reactions to food the mother consumes, such as dairy, soy, eggs

The UK has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. Although the initiation of breastfeeding after birth has increased to 80%, only 40% of babies are getting any breastmilk at 6 weeks and less than 20% at 6 months.

The support for new mothers who want to initiate breastfeeding is patchy, to say the least, but the minority of mothers are able to access skilled specialist breastfeeding support if breastfeeding does not go according to plan. There are a number of organisations that provide free helplines (LaLeche League, Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, The National Childbirth Trust) and there are private Breastfeeding Counsellors and IBCLCs (highly skilled breastfeeding specialists) who can support mothers.

Early intervention is key and problems such as pain during feeding, injured nipples, blocked ducts, mastitis, or fungal infections should be dealt with as soon as possible.

Common breastfeeding problems:

• Painful latching, sore nipples (cracked, blistered), milk blebs

• Engorged breasts

• Blocked ducts/mastitis

• Oversupply, Overactive letdown

• Low supply of breastmilk

• Sleepy, lethargic baby and jaundice

• Excessive weight loss, low or slow weight gain

All of these issues can be addressed with skilled lactation support, I suggest seeking help from a lactation consultant (IBCLC). Early intervention is key, the sooner problems are looked at the better.

For example, a mother who is experiencing painful breastfeeding has injuries to her nipples should always look for help. Pain during feeding is never normal and there is usually an explanation. Having a lactation consultant check the latch and position is always the first step. Often things can be improved by working on attaching the baby with a wide latch on the breast and trying various positions. If this doesn’t improve things, further troubleshooting should be done. Tongue-tie can be another issue, it is estimated that between 10-20% have a form of tongue-tie. This could explain why even with the best support and technique the pain is still not improved. IBCLCs are mostly aware of tongue ties but not always trained in diagnosing them. A final diagnosis should be made by a trained tongue-tie practitioner.

Breastfeeding, even though we know it should be the most natural thing in the world, doesn’t always come easy. It can be a rocky road and many mothers will struggle for weeks, even months, often on their own. To make this journey an enjoyable one, it is best to find a trustworthy professional to help with any hurdles.

Article written by: Dr Sharon Silberstein

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