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Breast-Feeding: Nature's Formula for Success

Breastfeeding: Nature's Formula for Success

WebMD Feature

It used to be a common refrain: Breast-feeding is great to try, but if you decide against it, don't sweat it.

Nobody's saying that anymore.

"Breast-feeding isn't just a nice thing to do," says Dr. Lawrence Gartner, a pediatrician and chairman for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) task force on breast-feeding. "It actually has a major impact on the mother's and child's health."

Be prepared. It may not come as naturally as one might think of something that's supposed to be natural. So it's wise to learn as much as you can about breast-feeding beforehand and line up the skilled support you might need if a problem does arise.

But above all, be ready to enjoy. Women who have been there say it's definitely worth it.

"There's such a warm connection," says Lisa Powers, of New York. "You feel so important in their life. It's so tender and loving. I can't imagine what it would be like to just sit and give her a bottle." Powers' daughter, Alexa, is 7 months old.

The Decision

The decision to breast-feed is a personal one, but the benefits overwhelmingly tip the scale in favor of it.

"Everything you hear about the health benefits, there's actually 10 times the evidence that the public is really aware of," says Laura Best-Macia, a board-certified lactation consultant in New York.

Babies derive a host of benefits, not just while they're breast-feeding, but perhaps all the way into adulthood.

While they're breast-feeding, babies show a marked reduction in almost all viral and bacterial illnesses, including diarrhea, ear infections and respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and meningitis. That's because breast milk contains not only the mom's antibodies, but also hundreds of compounds that alter the growth of bacteria and viruses.

Researchers also have discovered long-term benefits for breast-fed babies: a lower incidence of childhood middle-ear infections, chronic illnesses such as diabetes, allergies and, most recently, even obesity. Schoolchildren who were breast-fed also were found to have IQs about eight points higher.

There's even evidence that bonding between mothers and babies is enhanced with breast-feeding. When mothers nurse, the letdown reflex triggers the release of oxytocin, which sends signals to her brain that produce relaxation, mothering behavior and maternal attachment. Skin-to-skin contact appears to produce the same effect in the baby's brain.

Among the greatest medical benefits to moms is a reduction in the risk of getting at least two types of cancer -- pre-menopausal breast cancer and ovarian cancer -- as well as reduced incidence of osteoporosis and hip fractures. Researchers believe that prolonged production of estrogen and other hormones while you breast-feed may trigger protective mechanisms.

"The longer you breast-feed and the more children you breast-feed, the greater the benefits to the mother," says Dr. Gartner.

Acknowledging the benefits to mother and baby, the AAP recommends that mothers nurse their babies for at least a year -- exclusively for the first six months and then gradually introducing solids. In fact, experts encourage women to go as long as they and their babies want, into the second and third year.

If you don't breast-feed for that long, though, combining breast-feeding with formula is still preferable to formula alone, experts say. And something is better than nothing.

"We know that the benefits of breast-feeding are dose-related, so a baby that's breast-fed for three months has less protection than a baby that's breast-fed for six months," says Best-Macia, who is also president of Wellcare Inc., a group of lactation consultants. "But any amount of breast-feeding is beneficial, even if it's two days in the hospital."

Of course, there is plenty that can stand in the way of a woman's decision to nurse her baby.

Besides the difficulty women may have in learning proper technique, it takes more time and commitment -- you can't just hand off your baby to anyone who can hold a bottle. If you're going to work outside the home, you'll have to pump, which requires all sorts of logistical considerations. And, breast-feeding may make it difficult for some new mothers to lose those last few pounds.