Many new mothers experience a strong learning curve with regard to breastfeeding. It can take two or three weeks for a mother to truly learn the ropes. Some mothers may even think it is more cost-effective, convenient, and less invasive to bottle-feed their babies instead of breastfeeding. However, breastfeeding poses several lifelong benefits not only for the child but also for the mother. Jessica Donahue, RN, international board-certified lactation specialist at Baptist Health Women's and Children's Center, has spent the last 25 years teaching mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding and dispelling the myths many mothers have about feeding their newborns.
Can you figure out which statements are myths and which are facts?
Myth or fact? Breast milk decreases infections in babies.
Fact! "This is one of the biggest benefits of breastfeeding and one of the primary reasons that mothers who choose to breastfeed do so," Jessica says. "Normal full-term newborns who breastfeed have 50% fewer ear infections and 64% fewer GI infections, like the stomach virus." For premature babies who are breastfed, the benefits are even greater.
Myth or fact? Benefits from breast milk stop when a mother stops breastfeeding.
Myth! "Breast milk provides lifelong benefits," Jessica says. "One of the biggest misconceptions mothers have is that the benefits to their baby stop once they finish breastfeeding. Really, you're just scratching the surface." Over the course of a child's lifetime, breast milk prevents them from developing asthma by 30% and decreases childhood obesity and obesity later in life by 20%. "The longer a baby is breastfed, the more benefits occur later in life," Jessica adds.
Myth or fact? A mother's breast milk stays the same throughout her life.
Myth! "Human breast milk is species-specific and custom-ordered every meal just for your baby. Nobody else's," Jessica says.
The composition, color, volume, and taste can change in response to various internal and external factors the baby and mother experience.
"A mother's milk has been augmented to protect her baby from everything she has been exposed to in her lifetime. Her milk is the exact right blend of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, enzymes, minerals, and more for her specific child." Breast milk adapts from one feeding cycle to the next to accommodate a baby's growing needs.
Myth or fact? Breast milk provides more than just nutrients to a baby's body.
Fact! "Breast milk nurtures the microbiome with beneficial bacteria until it is fully mature. Beneficial gut bacteria play a role in lowering the risk of chronic diseases like asthma, obesity, allergies, dermatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and neurodevelopmental disorders," Jessica says.
In fact, breastmilk directly influences the makeup of a baby's gut microbiota by either enhancing specific bacteria growth or limiting the growth of others.
"When you have a baby whose gut is brand new, and you put in human breast milk tailored for that child's needs with all of the protections from diseases and infections a mother has experienced over their lifetime, it's easy to see how that could provide lifelong benefits for a baby," Jessica says.
Myth or fact? A mother should stop breastfeeding if she or her baby is sick.
Myth! "One of the most interesting facts I've learned over the last 25 years is that if a mother begins to get an infection or the baby is sick, her body recognizes it and writes a prescription for the baby," Jessica says. "Before the baby or mother is even sick, the mother's milk changes to protect the baby from infection and disease."
One of the most common questions women have regarding breastfeeding is whether they should continue to do so if they have a cold or the flu. Jessica's response?
"They absolutely should continue to breastfeed if they're feeling up to it. Practice good hand washing and protection procedures, but continue to breastfeed. Your baby will already be protected before you even realize you're sick."
Myth or fact? Breastfeeding is good for the environment.
Fact! "This is actually a benefit most people don't think about. Human milk is a natural, organic food," Jessica says. "Therefore, it reduces your carbon footprint, produces no waste, nothing to throw away, and no manufacturing byproduct. So, if you're a person who is environmentally conscious, there is an environmental benefit to breastfeeding as well."
Myth or fact? Breastfeeding only provides benefits for the baby, not the mother.
Myth! "A recent study of 161,000 women in menopause showed that women who breastfed for a year were less likely to get diabetes, breast cancer, and heart disease," Jessica says. "One year of breastfeeding gave the mother protection for 30 years from the three leading causes of death for women in America."
And that's not just one year of breastfeeding one baby. That's one year combined among all a mother's children.
Additional studies reveal that women who choose not to breastfeed miss six times more workdays due to illness than those who do.
"It doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing thing," Jessica adds. "When you begin breastfeeding, many factors will change as you go along. The benefits of breastfeeding for one year far outweigh the obstacles you may face along the way."
Myth or fact? Breastfeeding is a cost-saving alternative to bottle feeding.
Fact! "The cost is substantially less for a mother to breastfeed," Jessica says. "For most mothers, it is totally free to breastfeed. You only need a working milk supply."
Even if a mother has to buy a breast pump or invest in a nursing bra, the total cost results in significant savings (and invaluable health benefits) for a family over formula.
"Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, around 99% of insurance companies are now required to cover lactation consultations and other nursing products. This has dramatically improved the avenues a mother has to get the help she needs while breastfeeding."
So, how did you do?
The message is clear: Breastfeeding provides numerous benefits for the baby and the mother. Though there may be obstacles along the way, it is important for mothers to know that there are resources available to assist with whatever questions or concerns they have.
"There is a learning curve for any new mother in the first two or three weeks," Jessica adds. "But if you get the right help, you'll meet your breastfeeding goals and see the benefits it has on you and your baby."
Resources designed specifically to help mothers
There are several great places a mother can turn to for consultations and advice. As part of our larger effort to improve maternal and child health statewide, AFMC is working with the Arkansas Department of Human Services to promote best practices for increasing breastfeeding success.
Mothers and providers can use our Breastfeeding Promotion Strategies for Success to gather tips and helpful resources.
AFMC's Resource Library also includes a catalog of posters, flyers, and helpful brochures that speak to Arkansas mothers.
One great state resource is Baptist Health's Expressly for You, an outpatient breastfeeding resource center for all mothers. "At Expressly for You, moms can make appointments to come into our Little Rock, Conway, or Fort Smith location and receive a one-on-one consultation with one of our registered nurse international board-certified lactation consultants," Jessica says. "We teach mothers techniques that make breastfeeding easy, address concerns, and just help a mother feel supported."
The Little Rock and Fort Smith locations also include a boutique where mothers can purchase nursing bras, breast pumps, and other products to facilitate easy breastfeeding.
Additionally, Baptist Health works with the Arkansas Department of Health to offer a 24-hour Arkansas Breastfeeding Helpline. Through this helpline, families can reach a breastfeeding specialist by phone at 501-202-7378 or toll-free at 844-344-0408.
Finally, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC, offers a variety of breastfeeding services for qualifying mothers. WIC provides nutritious foods to supplement a mother's diet, information on healthy eating, offers breastfeeding promotion and support, and sets up referrals to hospitals or private clinics. Call the WIC Breastfeeding Helpline at 800-445-6175 for support.