There's an old saying that breast is best for babies. And as it’s World Breastfeeding Week from Tuesday August 1 to Monday August 7, I thought I’d use this week’s column to take a look at the facts.
There’s much evidence that the benefits of breastfeeding extend well beyond basic nutrition. As well as containing all the vitamins and nutrients your baby needs in the first six months of life, breast milk is packed with disease-fighting substances that protect baby from illness.
Feeding baby on nothing but breast milk for the first six months is ideal – but any amount is beneficial.
Research has shown that stomach viruses, lower respiratory illness, ear infections and meningitis occur less often in breastfed babies and are less severe when they happen. The main immune factor is a substance called secretory immunoglobin that’s produced in large amounts in colostrum, the first milk your body produces for your baby. It guards against invading germs by forming a protective layer on mucous membranes in your baby’s intestines, nose and throat.
Breast milk is tailored to your body. It responds to pathogens (viruses and bacteria) in your body and makes immunoglobin that’s specific to those pathogens, creating protection for your baby based on whatever you’re exposed to.
Breastfeeding may also help children avoid a host of diseases and conditions that strike in later life including diabetes, high cholesterol and inflammatory bowel disease. Breast feeding lowers a mum’s risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
World Breastfeeding Week is organised by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), and is intended to bring partners together to sustain breastfeeding. The campaign highlights that breastfeeding aids the survival of infants and helps them thrive while bringing long-term benefits for women.
The WABA is striving to create a society and physical environment in which breastfeeding can thrive in a world without poverty and hunger. It is working to create the right conditions for good health and wellbeing, and responsible consumption and production of food.
It is also campaigning to normalise breastfeeding in public.
Of course, breastfeeding isn’t a blissful experience for all new mums. It can be tiring, uncomfortable and less than entirely successful – especially at first. Fortunately, there is lots of helpful advice on the NHS Choices website.
Summing up, there’s no doubt that breast is best but it’s important to remember that any breastfeeding is way better than none at all. And it’s also important to bear in mind that the vast majority of babies thrive even if breastfeeding isn’t sustained for any length of time.