Hundreds of years ago there was no question:
newborns went to the breast for the only food that would enable
them to survive—mother’s milk. But today it’s
not so simple. With a variety of infant formulas posing safe
alternatives to breastfeeding, and lots of questions accompanying
a decision to nurse (How can I be sure my baby gets enough?
How does Dad stay included? What about my own bodily privacy?
And my time?) it seems fair to ask “why breastfeed at
Breastfeeding, how important is it?
Is whether to feed with breast or bottle simply
a matter of personal preference? Given that nursing is time-intensive
and potentially inconvenient, is it, well...a luxury rather
than a necessity? And anyway, isn’t breastfeeding just
another way of getting food into your baby?
Our answer to those questions comes from twenty-plus
years of observing mothers and babies and offering them help,
support, and information. It comes from understanding through
intensive study and hands-on learning the biological science
of lactation. And the answer we offer is this: Breastfeeding
is important. Vitally so. It is the single biggest advantage
you can give your developing baby, and the least expendable
work of being a new parent. It’s one of the most intimate
and emotionally binding experiences that we humans can have.
And the “inconvenience” may actually turn out
to be the best part. Why?
For starters, human breast milk is the best
food on earth for human babies. It is metabolized much more
efficiently than either formula or cow’s milk. It contains
live antibodies that protect babies from illness and when
they do get sick, the symptoms are usually milder. Breastmilk
also contains enzymes that protect baby from most of the infections
to which the mother has ever been exposed. It boosts the immune
system and invests an infant with protection against chronic
diseases (including some cancers) that lasts her entire lifetime.
And recent studies of infant brain development are compelling:
breastfed children are statistically smarter, consistently
scoring higher than formula-fed babies on mental aptitude
tests until as late as ten years of age. (If you’d like
to learn more about why, the books listed at right offer research
and details about what makes breastmilk so good for growing
brains and bodies, and how it compares with other options.)
What about infant formulas?
Formula manufacturers work hard on their products
but, somewhat surprisingly in this age of advanced biotechnology,
the composition of breastmilk is stubbornly resistant to replication.
That is because breastmilk is a living, organic substance;
an incomparable, unique biological compound. No two women’s
milk is identical, and milk from the same woman changes composition
based on baby’s evolving needs, the mother’s diet,
even the time of day. (The taste of breastmilk also varies
greatly with mother’s food choices; babies exposed to
it over time tend to be more accepting of new flavors later
when solids are introduced.) It may be decades before researchers
fully identify all the things in breastmilk that make it so
great for physical and mental development. Until then, the
fact is that infant formulas are, at best, incomplete imitations
of nature’s original: mother’s milk.
The non-nutritional benefits of breastfeeding.
Aside from the value of breastmilk as food,
the act of nursing itself does good things for babies and
their mothers. The close, skin-on-skin contact and the intense
oral stimulation of suckling make for one of the richest touch
experiences baby can have—which in turn shapes later
tactile sensitivity as well as visual and oral development.
It has proven enormously beneficial to the emotional development
and physical growth of babies born prematurely and babies
with special needs. And it’s good for mothers too—releasing
yummy hormones (prolactin and oxytocin, also known as “nature’s
tranquilizers”) that help offset the pressures and sleep
deprivation that come with new motherhood. Besides, nursing
burns lots of calories, so women who do it tend to return
to their pre-pregnancy weight much faster—often while
postponing the resumption of menstruation. It builds bone
density, helping stave off osteoporosis. And a surprising
bonus: breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of contracting
breast cancer by a combined 4% for every year she nurses as
well as having an effect on ovarian, or endometrial cancer.
We think breastfeeding is worth the effort just
for the lasting health benefits it provides mothers and babies.
But there’s more. Over the years many women have told
us the gentle, intuitive intimacy of breastfeeding fostered
in them a sense of confidence in their own mothering abilities,
instilling an approach to parenting that lasted long after
weaning. We’ve heard mothers talk about how the “inconvenience”
of nursing—the time commitment of staying on-call for
a new baby—actually turned out to be the best part,
helping them shift gears, slow down and savor the tender moments
that we all know are too fleeting. They see the time spent
as an early and profound investment in parenthood.
The choice to breastfeed—just like the
choice to become a parent—entails work. Hard work, sometimes.
Joyful, rewarding, life-affirming, occasionally frustrating,
empowering, thrilling, tiring, fulfilling, tender, loving
work. It’s work that only a woman can do. And there
is little work in the world that’s as important.