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"Why Breastfeed? A Comprehensive Guide on Breast Milk, Breastfeeding and Breastfeeding Support"
November 2017
Breastfeeding mother with baby

We have all grown used to people, placards, advertisements and doctors telling us that breastfeeding is the best thing a young mother can do for her baby. The subtle and ‘not-so-subtle’ social cues are both loud and clear*. So much so, that many mothers are  judged and bullied for choosing not to breastfeed their babies.

Scientifically speaking though, breastfeeding is indeed beneficial for both mother and baby.

Can all mothers breastfeed?

All mothers stress about whether they will be able to breastfeed their babies. The worry starts early on during the pregnancy and only grows as the delivery date gets closer. But, almost every mother can breastfeed her baby if she is provided with a supportive environment to do so. Our bodies are naturally designed to nurture our babies both before and after their births.

Almost all hospitals have breastfeeding experts that counsel young mothers on breastfeeding. Not to mention that there are several allopathic, homeopathic and Ayurvedic medicines that aid in milk production. Over the counter products such as ‘Shatavari’ and popular home remedies such as ‘jungle juice’ are also helpful if milk production is the problem.

Latching experts provide help and training to young mothers who face problems with the baby latching on properly. Organisations such as La Leche League are working tirelessly in this area.

So there, worry is only counter-productive where a mother’s health and her supply of milk are considered. With so many options out there now, almost all mothers can breastfeed their babies, should they choose to do so.

Why breast milk?

Nutritionally, breast milk is the perfect food for a baby, your baby! It is nature’s incredible concoction that has the right nutrients in the right quantities for your baby, to cater to its needs at every single stage of its growth. Not to mention that each drop of breast milk is jam-packed with antibodies, to help the baby fight off infections and illnesses without the external assistance of doctors. The best thing of all, breast milk is completely sterile, being directly passed from the mother to the baby.

If this hasn’t impressed you just yet, how about this masterstroke. Breast milk is a living substance! Yes, it is. It has the capacity to adapt to your baby’s needs on a day to day basis. Not only does its composition vary from day to day, but it does, even from feed to feed! For example if you have encountered any particular germs on a given day, your breast milk will automatically have antibodies for them, to protect your baby from the possibility of an infection. Sometimes it is denser, to provide the right nutrition, while sometimes it may be watery, to keep your baby hydrated on hot days.

Real breast milk actually comes a few days post the baby’s birth. The first breast milk is colostrum, a substance that is rich in nutrients and antibodies. Colostrum has mild laxative properties, which help the baby in passing meconium, the baby’s first, sticky stools. Each feed of breast milk starts with watery foremilk (to quench the baby’s thirst), followed by the hindmilk, which is high in fat and proteins. Breast milk thus takes care of the baby’s thirst as well as hunger, while providing it with all the nutrients necessary for its growth and development.

Does breast milk have any deficiencies?

When we talk about the advantages, we must also touch base on some doubts. It is still debated whether breast milk contains enough Vitamin D for the baby. Vitamin D is extremely important of the baby’s bone health. Studies suggest that while it is present in breast milk, its quantities are not significant; since Vitamin D generation is dependant on the mother’s sun exposure. Since babies are kept protected from the sun, their skin cannot generate the Vitamin either and they are thus completely reliant on breast milk for their supply.

The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that all breastfed babies are given Vitamin D drops as supplements. The UK department of health however recommends not just Vitamin D, but also Vitamins C and A, for babies that are older than 6 months and still rely on breast milk as their main food source. So, breast milk may not be totally faultless, but it still is and will remain your best bet for your baby.

Supplemental drops are not required for all babies. It actually depends on where you and your baby live and on the colour of your skin, since dark skinned babies are at higher risk of a Vitamin D deficiency. Only your paediatrician can tell you on on whether your baby needs them.

What are the advantages of breastfeeding for mother and baby?

    •    Nursing a baby is an expression of love. It forms the first essential bond between the mother and the baby. The baby memorises your touch, your feel, your body temperature and your smell and then starts associating it with love, security and comfort. An upset or ill baby then instinctively turns to you for the comfort of nursing.

    •    Breastfeeding also has a soothing, relaxing effect on the mother. While the baby suckles, the mother gets the opportunity and reason to rest and relax for a bit. Nursing mothers produce a higher level of prolactin, a hormone that helps them sleep post a feeding.

    •    Even if a baby is not breastfed for long, giving the baby the first few days of breast milk gives him a protective cover to tackle infections.  

    •    Breastfeeding is convenient. Think about it, you don’t need to sterilise, prepare and warm a bottle of formula milk in the middle of the night when your own supply is right there and ready.

    •    It is better for your baby, even statistically, when it comes to tummy bugs and diarrhoea. A study on American bottle fed babies suggest that bottle fed babies get diarrhoea as much as 12 times more often than breastfed babies do. Breastfed babies are also half as likely as formula-fed babies to suffer from common colds, ear infections, urine infections and respiratory diseases.

    •    In the same context, babies who have been exclusively breastfed for 6 months or more suffer from fewer allergies and are less likely to become obese later in life. Their chances of developing eczema, high blood pressure or even diabetes are also lower. Evidence also suggests that breastfed babies have better brain development.

    •    The flavour of breast milk changes according to what the mother has recently been eating. This means that a breastfed baby is exposed and made comfortable with a wider variety of tastes and flavours than a formula fed baby is. This makes weaning onto other foods that much easier for new moms.

    •    Breastfed babies have fewer dental problems and have better jaw development.

    •    Breastfeeding moms find it easier to get back in shape post delivery. Breastfeeding stimulates the production of the hormone oxytocin. This hormone helps the womb normalise to its original size once the baby is out. The fat stores made up during pregnancy are also broken down for the production of breast milk.

    •    Nursing moms get several health benefits out of breastfeeding their babies. The risks of developing ovarian and breast cancers are lower in breastfeeding mothers and so are the risks of osteoporosis.

    •    Breastfeeding regularly delays the return of your periods and has a contraceptive effect on your body. While you are a breastfeeding on demand and are not going without feeding for over 4 hours, the chances of you falling pregnant are negligible. But if you need to be sure of avoiding a pregnancy, you still need other contraceptive methods.

How long should you breastfeed?

Any period of breastfeeding is beneficial for a baby, so no matter how soon you want to discontinue it, it is essential that you do start. Normally, doctors suggest exclusive breastfeeding for six months and then continuing to breastfeed for at least the first year even after other foods are introduced. Feeding on demand is the best way to go about it if you intend to breastfeed for any duration.

How to increase breast milk supply?

Usually, a mother’s body should produce adequate breast milk for her baby. Even during the growth spurts, a mother is capable of producing higher breast milk supplies, provided she is given the right support and environment to do so. If you are worried about your breast milk falling short, right nutrition, adequate sleep and relaxation and sometimes even external medication and remedies may help to increase it.

Foods that help to increase your breast milk supply are: barley, fenugreek, fennel, oats, papaya, Brewer’s yeast, sesame seeds, dill, etc. Foods that should be avoided or limited when trying to increase breast milk are: alcohol, caffeine, peppermint, menthol, sage, parsley, etc.

Trying out various local home remedies also works. I tried jungle juice while in South Africa and I can vouch personally that it worked for me. You can find the jungle juice recipe here.

The Ayurvedic elixir for women, Shatavari, also helped me during the trying times where I was trying to improve my breast milk supply post a surgery. I just took a heaped spoonful of Shatavari with glass of cold milk, twice a day.

If home remedies too do not work, your doctor can write you a prescription for galactagogues that come in the form of capsules or tablets. These can be taken as per prescription to help increase the supply of breast milk.

Where can I get breastfeeding support?

There are several breastfeeding support groups that offer advice as well as support on breastfeeding, almost everywhere across the globe. Here in India, we have BSIM (Breastfeeding Support For Indian Mothers) who provide all the advice and assistance that new mothers need. Knowledgeable support is a boon for mothers plagued with questions and doubts such as: One side or two side? Is it working? Is it enough? HappyMom also provides such help and counters at several hospitals across India.

Even Youtube provides a lot of visual assistance on how to latch a baby on correctly. If you need further help, you can look for certified lactation consultants in your area. Most will happily assist you in the comfort of your homes and provide you with right information. Getting yourself into a healthier mental frame, armed with the right knowledge, goes a long way to ease the burden of stress and get your body more relaxed. This of course helps with the production of breast milk!

Help is available all around you now. This makes it easier to talk about the problems you face and to address them in the right manner. New moms are no longer alone whether they have familial support or not. For we all know, here in India, a new mom finds many advisors, but not as many real, tangible helpers!


* This article does not intend to preach the same doctrine. Each mother has a right to choose for herself and her child. We respect each mother’s choice and right to do so, without being judgmental. This is purely an informative article and should be taken as such.

- Photo by NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels

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