La Leche League GB is pleased to join other organisations and breastfeeding supporters drawing attention to the importance of breastfeeding during World Breastfeeding Week 2018.
The theme this year is “Breastfeeding: Foundation of Life” and the aim is to raise awareness of how important breastfeeding is for the lifelong good health of all babies and mothers.
Breastmilk has a significant effect on both short and long-term health wherever in the world the mother and baby live. For a mother, it reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, and lowers the risk of hypertension, among other things. For the infant it helps to fight infectious diseases and it decreases the incidence and severity of diarrhoea. It lowers the risk of respiratory infections and acute ear infections. It prevents dental caries and malocclusion and contributes to intellectual growth.
Colostrum (the milk produced in the first few days after birth) has highly concentrated immunological properties to help protect a baby’s immune system after birth. One of these antibodies called slgA (secretory immunoglobulin A) “paints” a protective coating on the inside of a baby’s intestines to prevent penetration by germs and potential allergens.
Colostrum also aids digestion and helps the baby pass the tar-like sticky meconium – the waste product which builds up in the baby’s gut during pregnancy from substances it ingests while in the womb.
Colostrum helps the baby get the right mix of beneficial bacteria, while mature milk continues to provide this protection to help the baby remain healthy, creating specific antibodies aimed at fighting germs to which either the mother or baby have been exposed. Breastfeeding in the early days also helps a mother’s uterus to contract.
Food security and poverty reduction
Within many countries there are huge inequalities in income distribution and living conditions. Breastfeeding provides food security whatever circumstances a baby is born into, preventing hunger and malnutrition. It supplies all the essential nutrients a baby needs for around the first six months of life and has the amazing ability to adapt to the needs of each individual infant. It contains living cells, hormones, active enzymes and antibodies, as well as compounds with unique structures that cannot be replicated in baby milk formula.
It helps to reduce poverty in families by avoiding the purchase of artificial milk, and it can help mothers with birth spacing potentially improving the family economy. NOT breastfeeding contributes to both economic and environmental costs in many ways. Health can also be affected by environmental damage and the production, packaging, storing, distribution and preparation of infant formula contributes to this. Increased illness in non-breastfed babies contributes to higher healthcare and treatment expenditure.
The large amounts of essential long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and growth hormones breastmilk contains have an important role in the development and function of the brain and central nervous system. The composition of human milk also changes to meet the developing needs of the baby as he matures, and even from feed to feed. Mature milk contains sugars called oligosaccharides which adhere to a baby’s intestinal lining, allowing good bacteria in while repelling harmful bugs. Scientists have also discovered something new in human milk called pancreatic secretory trypsin inhibitor (PSTI) which protects and repairs a baby’s intestine.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF and the Department of Health in the UK recommend early initiation of breastfeeding and exclusive breastfeeding for six months, followed by the introduction of nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods. This offers babies an optimal start in life. They also recommend continued breastfeeding up to two years and beyond.
UNICEF has also emphasised that breastfeeding is a collective responsibility. It has pointed out that individual women are not responsible for the low breastfeeding rates in the UK and that they have felt guilty about stopping in the early days or weeks for far too long.
Women do not “fail to breastfeed” – they are failed by a lack of sufficient support to enable them to breastfeed for as long as they and their baby want to.
World Breastfeeding Week gives us all a chance to raise the issues surrounding breastfeeding support and ensure that women get the help they need from health professionals, lay supporters, family, friends and the wider community.