World Breastfeeding Week was created to commemorate the signing in August 1990 of the Innocenti Declaration by government policy makers, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and others to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding worldwide. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the declaration and the 28th anniversary of World Breastfeeding Week, whose 2020 theme is “Support breastfeeding for a healthier planet.”
The Benefits of Breastfeeding for Moms
Breastfeeding provides many benefits to both mother and baby. Not only is it a bonding experience, but it releases hormones from the pituitary gland that are beneficial to the mother, including:
- Prolactin, which produces milk and causes a feeling of relaxation that allows a mother to focus on the child
- Oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone,” it promotes feelings of attachment and social bonding
Besides emotional satisfaction, breastfeeding provides other health benefits to moms, such as the following:
- Breastfeeding mothers recover from childbirth more quickly and easily than non-breastfeeding mothers, as oxytocin helps return the uterus to its regular size and can stem postpartum bleeding
- Women who have breastfed have reduced rates of breast and ovarian cancers later in life
- Breastfeeding may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular disease, such as hypertension and high cholesterol
- Breastfeeding promotes faster weight loss postpartum by burning around 500 extra calories a day to make and maintain a milk supply
- Breastfeeding offers a lower risk of postpartum depression and a more positive mood
- Breastfeeding lowers the chance of anemia
Breastfeeding moms also have peace of mind when traveling with their baby since breast milk is readily available, is always at the right temperature, and there is no cost involved or equipment to pack. In addition, the breastfeeding experience allows moms to learn and read their infant’s cues and promotes skin-to-skin contact and more nurturing.
The Benefits of Breastfeeding for Infants
Breastfeeding offers emotional and health benefits to babies as well. Breast milk contains an abundance of easily absorbed nutritional components, antioxidants, enzymes, immune properties, and live antibodies that can protect a baby from illness and infection.
Compared to bottle-fed babies, breastfed babies can experience the following:
- Stronger immune systems
- Less diarrhea, constipation, gastroenteritis, gastroesophageal reflux, and intestinal inflammation
- Fewer colds and respiratory illnesses
- Fewer ear infections
- Lower risk of bacterial meningitis
- Better vision
- Lower rates of infant mortality, including from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- Less illness and fewer hospitalizations
- Less obesity later in childhood
- Greater immunity
- Fewer cavities
- Fewer speech abnormalities and orthodontic problems
- Fewer instances of allergies, eczema, and asthma
- Protection against cancers such as lymphoma, leukemia, and Hodgkins disease
Diet and Breastfeeding
A normal, healthy diet, along with a prenatal vitamin, is best for breastfeeding mothers. Special attention should be given to the following components to help produce milk:
- Calcium: Calcium is stored in the bones, and women can lose 3 to 5 percent of their bone mass while breastfeeding. Therefore, it is important for breastfeeding women to get the recommended dosage of calcium they need. Typically, 1,000 milligrams for adult breastfeeding moms and 1,300 milligrams for teen moms are required to replenish calcium stores. A diet containing dairy products, dark, leafy greens, and foods fortified with calcium is recommended. Fortunately, calcium is recovered in the bones within six months after weaning.
- Vitamin D: The D vitamin, known as the “sunshine vitamin,” also helps maintain bone strength. Exposure to sunlight can provide some vitamin D (avoid excessive exposure, though) as can a diet of some fish (tuna, salmon, and mackerel), orange juice, egg yolks, and fortified dairy products. A dose of 4,000 or higher of vitamin D is often recommended for breastfeeding moms, but check with your doctor on the amount that is right for you.
- Protein: Protein, which builds, restores, and maintains body tissues, is essential in balancing the demands of breastfeeding. Two to three daily servings of lean meat, poultry, or fish provide the right amount of protein, but non-meat-eating moms can still get protein through eggs, nuts, and beans.
- Iron: Iron helps with energy levels and is an important component of hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of the body. Lean meats and dark, leafy greens offer a lot of iron, as do fish, iron-fortified cereals, and dark poultry meat.
- Folic acid: Nursing moms and all childbearing women should get 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. Folic acid can prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord and is found in spinach and other leafy greens, citrus fruits, beans, and meat or poultry liver.
How Is Breastfeeding Good for the Environment?
There are many ways breastfeeding benefits the environment, including that there is zero waste produced with breastfeeding. It also ensures food security for a developing infant. Unlike formula, which is often based on cow’s milk, breast milk does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in its manufacturing, processing, and transporting. A 2019 study at the Imperial College London has calculated that the harm infant formula production and consumption can cause the environment in a year’s time is equivalent to the pollution from 50,000 to 77,000 automobiles.
Breast milk also benefits the environment in the following ways:
- It requires no advertising, packaging, or waste.
- No human energy is expended sterilizing bottles and refrigerating them.
- It requires no equipment or resources to create.
- It is at the perfect temperature for an infant and requires no energy to heat.
Who Should Not Breastfeed?
There are circumstances in which women may choose not to breastfeed or when breastfeeding is not advised for health reasons, including if the mother:
- has HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome)
- is taking medications that can be passed to the baby in breast milk
- is under treatment for cancer and taking chemotherapy or undergoing radiation procedures
- has active and untreated tuberculosis
- is infected with the retrovirus human T-cell lymphotropic virus type I or type II
- is taking illegal drugs such as cocaine, PCP, and heroin
- uses marijuana or drinks alcohol
- has a baby with galactosemia, a condition that does not allow the baby to digest or tolerate milk
In these instances, consult with your doctor on the best prepared formula for your baby.
Breastfeeding and COVID-19
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there currently is a lack of information available on whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 can be transmitted through breast milk but that the limited data available suggest transmission is unlikely. Still, an infected mother should consult with her and her infant’s health-care providers on whether to begin or continue breastfeeding.
Women are advised to take all possible precautions to decrease the chances of transmission if they have or suspect they have the disease. Since there is a definite risk of transmission from infectious respiratory secretions, women with COVID-19 are advised to limit contact with their infants, having a healthy caregiver watch over the baby.
At the very least, women who test positive should take precautions if they choose to breastfeed. They should:
- Wash their hands before touching the baby and use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol
- Wear a face covering while breastfeeding the baby
- Wash their hands before touching a pump or bottle parts before extracting milk
- Clean and disinfect all parts of a pump after using
- Have a healthy caregiver feed the child the expressed milk
The CDC states that babies born to women with suspected or confirmed infection are also considered infected when test results are unavailable. Both infant and mother are required to remain in home isolation for 14 days. See the CDC’s COVID-19 Care for Breastfeeding Women page for more information.
Breast Is Best
For optimum health outcomes, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants be breastfed for at least the first six months of life. Breastfeeding is not for everyone, however, and there is no shame in having to use infant formula. Given the benefits, though, breastfeeding is worth considering for most women. Contact your health-care providers for information on how breastfeeding may be possible for you.
For more information on World Breastfeeding Week around the globe, see the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) website.
Sources: AAP, Breastfeeding, https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Breastfeeding/Pages/Benefits-of-Breastfeeding.aspx; CDC, Coronavirus Disease 2019, Care for Newborns, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/caring-for-newborns.html; Cleveland Clinic, The Benefits of Breastfeeding for Baby & for Mom, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/15274-the-benefits-of-breastfeeding-for-baby–for-mom; Healthy Children.org, Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/breastfeeding/Pages/Benefits-of-Breastfeeding-for-Mom.aspx#:~:text=Breastfeeding%20provides%20health%20benefits%20for,and%20can%20reduce%20postpartum%20bleeding.; Healthy Children.org, How a Healthy Diet Helps You Breastfeed, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/breastfeeding/Pages/How-a-Healthy-Diet-Helps-You-Breastfeed.aspx; Imperial College London, Environmental Cost of Formula Milk Needs Global Attention, 10/02/19, https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/193226/environmental-cost-formula-milk-needs-global/; La Leche League International (LLLI), https://www.llli.org/world-breastfeeding-week-2020/; LLLI, Breastfeeding and the Environment, https://www.laleche.org.uk/breastmilk-and-the-environment/; LLLI, Vitamin D, Your Baby, and You, https://www.llli.org/breastfeeding-info/vitamin-d/; News Medical Life Sciences, When Should I Not Breastfeed My Baby?, https://www.news-medical.net/health/When-Should-I-Not-Breastfeed-My-Baby.aspx#:~:text=The%20HIV%20virus%20can%20pass,babies%20rather%20than%20infant%20formula.
Graphics: 1 and 4: World Alliance for Breastfeeding Week, https://waba.org.my/wbw/; 2 and 3: Pan American Health Organization, https://www.paho.org/en/campaigns/world-breastfeeding-week-2020