In the last article it was suggested that breastfeeding for two years or more, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, is the best policy for a child’s development. The far lower rate of Sudden Infant Death syndrome among exclusively breastfed children was also pointed out. Some of the other ways that breastfeeding has been shown to benefit both the child and the mother are summarised in the following table.
Less Sick Babies
Several studies have found that breastfed infants become ill less frequently than formula fed infants. Even when babies are fed breastmilk from a bottle rather than directly from the breast, which is not the ideal mode of delivery, they still have a lower incidence of illness than formula fed babies. A study done on infants in Jerusalem found that those who were exclusively breastfed for the longest period of time had the lowest number of illnesses. One of the health promoting factors of breastmilk are the anti-inflammatory agents, and other specific substances, such as unique kinds of sugar which are not present in formula. Because it is usually transferred directly from the breast to the infant there is no time for contamination. In comparison formulas have undergone long series of processes before they are then made up and served to the child from other implements. This allows time for contamination with bacteria, aside from the fact that milk made up from powder is never as good as fresh. Few people stoop to using evaporated milk in their coffee, let alone as a major portion of their diet. If we do not enjoy the taste of rehydrated milk, why would we wish to condemn our children to existence upon such a substance unless there were no alternative?
A young baby digests a bellyful of breast milk in about an hour and a half. Therefore, if the baby is only being fed every few hours, it is probably going to be hungry for long periods, and may express its discomfort by crying. Feeding on demand may help to reduce crying. One study indicates that schedules and ‘[r]igid timing of feeds leads to reduced efficiency of lactation, and the tension of “clock watching” makes for a fractious baby’. As formula is less easily assimilated, it has been estimated that a bellyful of formula takes 3 or 4 hours for an infant to digest. As it is also more work to prepare a sterilized bottle of formula than to breastfeed, this is likely to result in fewer feeds for the infant.
Positive health benefits for mother
A mother’s body is supposed to produce milk after the birth of a child. Predictably, there are health benefits for mothers who use their bodies as they were designed. For example, risk of developing breast cancer is reduced the longer a woman spends breastfeeding during her lifetime.
‘The relative risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3% for every 12 months of breastfeeding in addition to a decrease of 7.0% for each birth. The size of the decline in the relative risk of breast cancer associated with breastfeeding did not differ significantly for women in developed and developing countries, and did not vary significantly by age, menopausal status, ethnic origin, the number of births a woman had, her age when her first child was born, or any of nine other personal characteristics examined. It is estimated that the cumulative incidence of breast cancer in developed countries would be reduced by more than half, from 6.3 to 2.7 per 100 women by age 70, if women had the average number of births and lifetime duration of breastfeeding that had been prevalent in developing countries until recently. Breastfeeding could account for almost two-thirds of this estimated reduction in breast cancer incidence…The lack of or short lifetime duration of breastfeeding typical of women in developed countries makes a major contribution to the high incidence of breast cancer in these countries.’
In addition to this remarkable study, we find similar reduction in rates of ovarian cancer in breastfeeding women. ‘Breastfeeding was inversely associated with the risk of ovarian cancer, especially long-term breastfeeding duration that demonstrated a stronger protective effect.’ Another study found breastfeeding was associated with lower rates of endometrial cancer.
While the general consensus on the effect of breastfeeding on post-partum depression is less clear, there is some evidence that it is protective. One study found, among other factors, that ‘being in the group of women who were breast-feeding was associated with a lower likelihood of symptoms’. It seems that among women who want to breastfeed, successfully breastfeeding is very protective of depression. Among those women who wish to breastfeed but experience difficulties, however, the perceived failure can incline those women further toward depression. We wish those women who have difficulty breastfeeding success in finding an answer to their problem. There is much information available to assist women who experience low milk supply or pain during nursing, and whose babies’ which are not feeding well.
Other benefits to the mother include a faster contraction of the uterus to its pre-pregnancy size, reduced risk of osteoporosis, a slower return to menstruation, a faster return to pre-pregnancy weight, and decreased risk of type 2 diabetes,
We can see that using one’s body as it was intended to be used, and nurturing the child one has produced for a sufficiently long time has positive effects for the woman as well as the child. The high rates of cancer we experience in the modern world are partially the result of a turning away from the natural role of women.
Less Sleep Deprivation
If the baby wakes in the night and they are within arm’s reach of their nursing mother, it is very quick and easy for the mother to pick him up and feed him while she is in bed. Mothers may fall asleep while nursing, and nursing causes many children to fall asleep. This certainly sounds less disruptive to sleep than being woken by the child screaming from another room, and then having to make up a bottle of formula to feed him before being able to return to bed. The baby will also have to cry less loudly and for shorter duration to wake you, which probably means they will be calmer and more easily soothed. Current health recommendations support having the infant in the same room as the mother, although to avoid the risk of the child being suffocated in blankets and pillows, it is suggested that they have their own separate bed near the mother. However, more recently the accuracy of the belief that children are more likely to die from SIDS when sharing their parents bed has been called into question. If parents do choose to share a bed with their child it is important that the sleeping space is set up properly to avoid suffocation risks. It is also important to avoid any drugs or medications which might affect one’s ability to be woken if necessary, and to make sure the room is smoke free. It seems however, that the safest way for a child to sleep is within reach of their breastfeeding mother.
It is also obvious that it is risky for an infant to be left alone without a caregiver. Therefore an infant is likely to be distressed by what it can only interpret as abandonment. The child does not know that its mother will come if it cries for long enough. It needs to be right with a parent to know that it is being looked after. If your child is sleeping in another room, and crying all night, it might be indicating its distress at being left alone. The Australian Association of Infant Mental Health expressed their concern that controlled crying practices, where the infant is left to cry for increasingly long periods in an effort to train them out of crying, ‘is not consistent with infants’ and toddlers’ needs for optimal emotional and psychological health and may have unintended negative consequences.’ One man found that when his wife began co-sleeping with their daughter she cried far less, barely woke for feedings, and that he could sleep the whole night through.
We could venture to suggest that some of the sleep problems western parents experience with a young child could be caused by the unnatural practice of separating the child from the parents at night, a practice which makes little sense if the mother breastfeeds. There are plenty of reasons to suspect that babies need close contact with an adult to feel safe.
‘Although forms of infant sleeping vary enormously from culture to culture, the potentially beneficial physiological regulatory effects of maternal contact on human infants during sleep do not. Up to one degree of temperature can be lost when a newborn human is removed from the mother’s stomach following birth, even when the infant is placed in an incubator with ambient temperatures set to match the mother’s body temperature.8 Richard found that among 11- to 16-week-old infants, solitary-sleeping infants exhibited lower average axillary skin temperatures than breastfeeding infants sharing a bed with their mothers.9 Thoman and Graham discovered that even mechanical breathing teddy bears placed next to apnea-prone human newborns have the effect of reducing apneas by as much as 60%, in addition to physically drawing the infant subjects to sleep in direct contact.10 Moreover, when resting on their mothers’ (or fathers’) chests, skin-to-skin, both premature and full-term infants breathe more regularly, use energy more efficiently, grow faster, and experience less stress.11,12,13’
Clearly the choice of whether to co-sleep or room share with an infant is a personal one, but mothers should not fear that having the child in bed with them (once it is properly set up) will necessarily be dangerous.
Bottles and Dummies (also known as pacifiers)
Breastfeeding frequently and late weaning may also remove the need for dummies. Dummies mimic suckling. If the child is pacified by sucking on a dummy, this suggests that the child wants to nurse. Instead of responding to this need by giving the child a pretend nipple to suck on, the mother could try feeding the child. Dispensing with dummies is advantagous, both because a slobbery piece of silicon is not something one wishes to be responsible for, and because dummies can teach poor oral posture. This is true of bottles also. Studies indicate that exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, without the use of dummies results in less orthodontic problems.
Other dentists have suggested that a later weaning time might be more important for good orthodontic development.
‘…the period of time a mother breast feeds seems of less influence than the age the child commences weaning. Newly born children suckle and in my experience don’t normally learn to swallow until the age of twelve to fifteen months. Suckling and swallowing are quite different. For the former the tongue is between the gum pads and for the latter it should suck against the palate. I feel fairly certain that early weaning on slops before a child has developed a natural swallow, can lead to the development of the tongue-between- tooth swallows that are endemic in civilised society. This is the cause of many collapsed arches and malocclusions.’
The research of Doctors John and Mike Mew suggest that teeth crowd when the dental arch is insufficiently wide, and that a wide dental arch is a common feature of beautiful faces. The conventional treatment for crowded teeth is to remove teeth, and then close the gaps, further decreasing the dental arch. This results in fallen, less attractive faces. Therefore, breastfeeding and late weaning can help your child to develop a good-looking face. The Mews have developed orthotropic, rather than orthodontic treatments to widen arches and prevent dental crowding by healing, rather than damaging the face.
No traumatic weaning,
Weaning a baby is also a potentially troubled time. If however, the child is much older than most children in our society are when they are fully weaned, this is much less likely to be difficult. As weaning can take place very gradually between the age of 6 months and 3 years there is plenty of time for the child to become used to a range of foods. This slow weaning process may also work well with baby-led weaning. In this approach to weaning, children are not fed purees or mushy foods from a spoon. Instead, the child is provided with ordinary solid foods and allowed to feed themselves. This allows them to become used to food on their own terms, without being force fed something they do not like. At first the child will probably not eat that much, but as they are still breastfeeding, there is no pressure to get them to eat a certain quantity of solid food.
A study into the frequency of choking in children weaned using different approaches found ‘[b]aby-led weaning was not associated with increased risk of choking and the highest frequency of choking on finger foods occurred in those who were given finger foods the least often.’ Learning to feed themselves and eventually use their own cutlery helps the child to develop fine motor control. By the time they are two or three years old they should be accustomed to a large range of ordinary foods, and gradually withdrawing breastmilk should not cause undue distress. Dr Mike Mew recommends baby led weaning in order to help children maintain wide dental arches and attractive faces. That’s not to say that any feeding off of a spoon is wrong or damaging, but baby-led weaning sounds easier than planning and preparing special foods which must be fed to the child in certain quantities.
No packing baby foods on outings
In addition to being able to dispense with a dummy, there is a whole array of ugly plastic utensils, formulas and purees which can be expelled from one’s life. If the child’s primary food source for the first two or three years of its life is breastmilk, there is little special equipment to purchase and carry around. When the child is hungry the mother can quietly withdraw somewhere out of the way, or cover herself with a scarf and feed her child directly. The mess of a child learning to eat can be contained at home where it is convenient to deal with.
Maternal Love and Infant Bonding
When wet nursing was widely practiced it was accepted that children bonded more closely with the person who nursed them. If the mother did not nurse her child, the child did not bond with her as strongly. Valerie Fieldes, in her book Breasts Bottles and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding gives evidence of parents leaving more money in their wills to the children that the mother had nursed as one type of evidence for the bond formed with breastfeeding (Fieldes, page 100). Modern studies have found that breastfeeding makes mothers more responsive to their infants’ cries, and that children who were breastfed and exposed to active bonding during feeding displayed the lowest risks of internalizing behaviour problems at age six years. Perhaps the physical intimacy of breastfeeding has as much to do with its benefits as its nutritional superiority. It is understood that a small percentage of mothers legitimately experience difficulty breastfeeding, and must by necessity resort to other options. As the spirit of the law is more important than its letter, we can hope that the mere intention to do one’s best for one’s child, whatever one’s limitations, will go a long way to ensuring optimal outcomes.
We should not need studies to tell us that breastfeeding is better for both mother and child. It should be instinctively obvious that this is the case. However, it is always helpful to have such research available to confirm this. Because mothers are aware of the huge responsibility they undertake in bringing a new and vulnerable person into the world, they are naturally anxious to follow advice. Sometimes the advice we are given, or the common practices of others, contradict our instincts. The overwhelming message of this research is that if we do not disregard our instincts, and use our bodies the way they were intended to be used, suffering is prevented and good is produced. This ought to lead us to ask; do we suffer because life is so constituted that it must be painful, or do we suffer because we make imperfect choices? What other suffering could we eliminate if we were more prudent?
Go on to the next article for the effect of breastfeeding upon child spacing.