Breastfeeding offers variety of benefits for people in hard times
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Long known for its health benefits, breastfeeding also deserves praise for being environmentally friendly while offering important economic advantages for families and the nation in hard times, says a University of Florida researcher.
“Breastfeeding is the ultimate sustainability project,” said Delores James, a professor in UF’s department of health education and behavior and lead author of the newly released and updated American Dietetic Association position paper on breastfeeding. “There is no need to buy formula, heat it up and wash bottles because the mother makes her own milk that is sanitary, the right temperature and tailor made for the baby.”
The ADA recommends babies be breastfed exclusively for six months and then breastfed another six months as solid foods are introduced into the diet, she said.
“Especially now with people losing jobs, families can save money on their grocery bills by breastfeeding instead of having to pay for formula for all those months,” James said. “And with the trend toward organic foods and healthier lifestyles, more women are giving breastfeeding a second look.”
Breastfeeding rates have increased for some women, primarily white college graduates, but have a long way to go in the United States compared with other countries, James said. Globally, about 69 percent of infants are breastfed for one year, compared with only 21 percent in this country, she said.
Breastfeeding was common in the early 20th century but was increasingly abandoned with the emergence of infant formula, which companies aggressively marketed by providing free samples to new mothers through their doctors and hospitals, James said. The share of American mothers initiating the practice of breastfeeding dropped to an all-time low of about 20 percent in the early 1970s before jumping to a high of 70 percent in 1982, she said.
A prominent role model in reviving the practice was Princess Diana, who breastfed after giving birth to Prince William in 1982, James said. “All of a sudden breastfeeding was the innovation and it became something women wanted to do because “Oh the princess was doing it,” she said.
As Hollywood celebrities began taking up breastfeeding in large numbers, more and more middle-class women aspired to try it, particularly those who had children later in life and wanted to do everything right, she said.
Immigrant women also breastfeed at high rates, James said. However, the longer these women live in this country, the more likely they are to substitute formula and breastfeed for shorter periods of time, she said.
Many of these women will continue to breastfeed shortly after moving to the United States only to abandon the practice in future pregnancies as they adapt to American culture and find formula readily available and easy to use, she said.
The issue is particularly relevant with the current debate about the costs of health care, said James, whose paper lists benefits for both mother and baby.
Breast milk helps enhance the baby’s immune system, reducing the risk of asthma, respiratory infections, obesity, diabetes and gastroenteritis, James said. It also helps protect against allergies and food intolerances, and can even reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, she said.
“With people losing their health insurance or never having health insurance in the first place, knowing that breast milk is supplying antibodies and helping to boost their baby’s immune system is something that should not be overlooked,” she said.
For mothers, breastfeeding also offers health benefits, including reducing postpartum bleeding and easing postpartum weight loss by shrinking the uterus. Besides helping mothers bond with the baby, breastfeeding can decrease a woman’s risk for postpartum depression, as well as such chronic diseases as type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and ovarian cancer, she said.
James discusses the importance of breastfeeding in her nutrition classes. One thing she said she emphasizes is that procedures such as nipple piercing, breast augmentation and breast reduction may have long-term negative impacts on breastfeeding.
“When teenagers think about getting breast implants for their sweet 16th birthday present, they’re not thinking about how it might affect their ability to breastfeed later on,” she said.