October is breast cancer awareness month so I thought it apt to talk about breastfeeding and its benefit to the mother as well as the child.
The paediatric unit at the Chris Hani Baragwaneth hospital, where I did my training was aptly known as the “Mother and Child unit”. It goes without saying that for there to be a healthy child there needs to be a healthy mother. Fathers of course play an essential role in the life and psychological well- being of the child, but a mother’s health is deeply interwoven with that of her child. In my time in private practice I have had a number of mother’s go through breast cancer. Such a diagnosis creates an enormous amount of trauma for the family as a whole. If there is the slightest thing a woman can do to protect herself from this devastating disease then it is worth it. Breastfeeding not only protects the baby but also has huge benefits for mothers when it comes to the issue of breast cancer.
Breast feeding and its benefit to the baby:
- Colostrum– From birth till about 72 hours after birth a mother produces colostrum. This is a precursor to breastmilk and is yellowy gold in colour and quite thick. Its primary function is to boost the immune system. It has an amazing effect on the gut. Imagine your baby’s gut to be like a sieve when baby is born. All manner of harmful organisms can get into your baby’s bloodstream from an immature gut. If your baby gets colostrum the holes of the sieve are closed up and the gut is sealed preventing harmful organisms entering your baby’s bloodstream via the gut. Without colostrum there is a much higher rate of neonatal infections. Even if you are unable to breastfeed immediately you can ask your midwife to collect the colostrum from your breast using a syringe and to give it to your baby. You will only produce about a teaspoon of colostrum a day but this is enough for your baby. It is a superfood with everything that your baby needs in the first few days of life.
- Transitional milk– Up until baby is about 14 days your breasts will produce a mix of colostrum and breastmilk. This transitional milk is packed with all baby needs including hormones, cells and the helpful bacteria (microbes). All of these aid with the growth of your baby and gut integrity.
- Mature milk– Breastmilk contains around 600 types of microbes as well as the sugars necessary to feed these microbes. These healthy, well fed microbes flood the baby’s gut and make it extremely difficult for harmful microbes to exist in the gut. Around one third of the microbes found in your baby’s gut come from breastmilk and bring with them all the benefits of good gut integrity such as immunity, protection from infection and chronic illnesses. The microbes obtained from breastmilk also prepares the gut for taking maximal nutrition from solid food once that is introduced. The microbes continue to stimulate the immune system and metabolic system for as long as breastfeeding continues. All in all it is programming your baby’s body to be in a state of well-being where dreadful illnesses are kept at bay by the most natural process.
Breast feeding and its benefit to the mother:
- Breastfeeding reduces cancer– There are a number of different types of cancers but when it comes to the health of a mother research has shown that breastfeeding reduces the rate of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer. This occurs mainly because breastfeeding suppresses estrogen, which can be responsible for the growth of cancer cells.
- Breastfeeding lowers the risk of heart disease-Various studies have shown that woman who have breastfed are less likely to develop high blood pressure and heart disease during their menopausal years.
- Breastfeeding reduces the chances of type 2 diabetes– Breastfeeding controls blood insulin. This has a direct effect on the pancreatic cells and has been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by at least one quarter.
- Weight loss- Since breastfeeding uses up a lot of energy a breastfeeding mother is more likely to return to her pre-pregnancy weight sooner. As long as a mother is eating well and maintaining her normal food intake then the high demand from breastfeeding will help the mom to lose unwanted weight.
- Reducing uterine bleeding after birth –A mother naturally experiences bleeding after birth. If the mother is breastfeeding then a hormone known as oxytocin is released. This helps to shrink the uterus and reduce the amount of bleeding following birth.
Breastfeeding is always the number one choice for any mother or infant. While I fully recognize the enormous emotional stress and anxiety breastfeeding causes many mothers, it is vitally important that mothers are made aware of the tremendous benefit that breastfeeding has for their infant as well as themselves. Breastfeeding is not easy. I have watched so many mothers beat themselves up over the feeding issue. What we know is that breastfeeding is so important for your health and the health of your infant. Don’t struggle alone. There are really good resources available to help a new mother to establish her breastfeeding. Most medical aid schemes will pay for a lactation specialist to do a consultation immediately after birth. Other medical aids have unlimited resources to ensure that a mother is supported in her breastfeeding efforts. In the month of breast cancer awareness let us all strive to reduce the chances of this awful disease inflicting its toll on yet another family.