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Dietitians Dish: Breast-feeding best for newborns

Feb. 15, 2011 at midnight
Updated Feb. 14, 2011 at 8:15 p.m.

Christie Mayer Bain

By Christie Mayer

Prior to the 18th century, breast milk was the only acceptable source of nourishment for a newborn baby. If a mother could not breast-feed, she hired a wet nurse. At the turn of the 20th century, breast-feeding declined in the United States because of the rise of hospital births and the practice of separating mothers and infants after delivery. Since the 1970s, the trend reversed until just more than half of all mothers were choosing to breast-feed.

Lactation, defined as maternal secretion of milk for a suckling offspring, is an automatic physiological process. Breast-feeding is a learned behavior that is most successful in a supportive environment. Support from health care professionals and family, especially the father, is important.

Breast milk is a unique nutritional source that cannot be adequately replaced. It improves the overall health of the mother and child. Infants are fragile and susceptible to disease and require adequate nutrition. Breast-feeding is often devalued since infant-formula companies advertise and compete with it. From a nutrition standpoint, breast milk is the preferred choice for infants. It provides necessary carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Breast milk also provides enough water for a healthy infant to replaces water losses.

BENEFITS OF BREAST MILK

For infants:

Provides a favorable balance of nutrients with high bioavailability

Protects against some chronic diseases, such as juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and cancer

Provides hormones that promote physiological development

Improves cognitive development

Protects against a variety of infections

Reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Makes food allergies less likely

Introduces a wide variety of flavors, which may improve acceptance of foods later in life

For mothers:

Contracts the uterus

Lengthens the birth intervals

Conserves iron stores (by prolonging amenorrhea)

Reduces risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer

Protects bone density

Saves money and offers convenience

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding for at least the first year of an infant's life. In addition to the health benefits for the mother and child, breast-feeding provides an incredible bonding experience. Choosing to breast-feed is a personal decision that every mother should consider.

Christie Mayer is a registered and licensed dietitian and has a master of science degree. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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