The question: I'm about to have my first child. I really feel strongly about not breastfeeding, but my friends tell me I'm crazy not to. What should I do?
The answer: Your friends are right to encourage you to consider nourishing your newborn with breast milk. In Canada, the majority of new mothers choose to breastfeed their newborns – and with good cause. The advantages of breastfeeding have been well established and include benefits for both the infant and the mother.
The following are some of my favourite reasons to consider breast milk for your baby:
- 1. Antibodies in breast milk protect your baby from infection. These germ-busters are not present in formula.
- 2. Breastfed babies have much lower rates of obesity later in life.
- 3. Breastfeeding lowers the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
- 4. Breastfed children also have lower rates of diabetes, asthma and Crohn’s disease. All of these conditions pose significant and chronic health challenges.
- 5. Mothers who breastfeed have lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer.
- 6. No bottles to clean, water to boil and – best of all – it’s free!
There are only a very small number of medical reasons for a mother to avoid breastfeeding. These include severe maternal health problems like HIV, tuberculosis and the need for chemotherapy.
It is worth acknowledging that breastfeeding doesn't work out for everybody. There are some mothers who struggle to produce enough milk, and there are infants who don't readily latch to the breast (these issues often coexist together).
Timely intervention by an experienced physician, nurse or lactation consultant can usually overcome these challenges, but success is not guaranteed. Similarly, some women find it difficult to continue to breastfeed when they return to work. Pumping and storing breast milk is one possible solution, but it may not be for everyone.
I strongly encourage even hesitant new mothers to breastfeed soon after delivery and for the duration of their hospital stay. Even a few days of mother's milk will confer health benefits to the newborn. Many moms also discover that breastfeeding is easier and more satisfying than they ever imagined.
If your breastfed baby is struggling to feed or gain weight, don't hesitate to seek support as soon as possible. Such problems occur commonly even under the best of circumstances and are usually correctable with professional help.
Whether you breastfeed for days, weeks or months, the choice is ultimately yours. Only you will know what works best for you and your baby.
If long-term breastfeeding doesn't work for you, so be it – your friends should respect your decision. Just don't knock it till you've tried it.
Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.
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