Today is the first day of World Breastfeeding Week. As a social and political issue, breastfeeding has been a hot button topic in recent years. For years, women have been trying to balance the recommendations of doctors and health organizations with their own routines, abilities and expectations. Why is breastfeeding so important, and how can women learn to breastfeed in a way that is best for both themselves and their babies?
It’s common knowledge that there are important health benefits associated with breastfeeding, not only for babies but mothers as well. Early breast milk (also known as colostrum) is extremely rich in nutrients and antibodies. The hormones and antibodies passed to a baby through breastfeeding can help ward off illness, and babies who are breast fed tend to be healthier than babies fed exclusively on formula.
As a baby grows, its mother’s body begins to produce mature milk comprised of fat, sugar, water and essential proteins; this milk is easier for babies to digest than formula. For mothers, the feeling of physical closeness can help strengthen the bond with their newborns. Breastfeeding also aids postpartum weight loss and can alleviate postpartum depression.
Many leading health organizations (the WHO, CDC, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, for example) have recommended feeding babies exclusively on breast milk for the first six months of life and continuing to breast feed until the child’s first birthday.
That said, breast feeding can be difficult. Apart from certain physical challenges (breast tenderness, difficulty producing a sufficient quantity of milk, etc.) there are also lifestyle-related obstacles. In the U.S., women make up almost half of the total workforce, and many are not able to take more than a few weeks of maternity leave. Many low-income women can’t afford to take time off, and many women in high-powered careers are pressured to go back to work immediately. Either way, figuring out a regular schedule for breastfeeding in the first six months, let alone year, can be a real hardship for working women.
Finding time to breastfeed can create an enormous amount of stress and guilt for women who find themselves pulled in different directions by responsibilities. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this problem. But having the facts and understanding the benefits associated with regular breastfeeding are good first steps.
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