*Written from a mother who has breastfed, pumped and bottle fed, and formula fed.
Recently, my youngest and I participated in a breastfeeding study at The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). My milk was evaluated for calories and fat count. As his pediatrician put it, I’m a Jersey! That is probably the only time anyone can call being compared to a cow as a compliment. In fact, I am so proud of that, I’d put it on a T-shirt! Between this study and several things I have seen on the news and social media, the benefits of breastfeeding have been more at the front of my mind. And not just breastmilk but the act of breastfeeding itself.
For as long as I can remember, there has been a slogan that says, “breast is best!” and that “breastmilk is nature’s perfect food”. As with all different kinds of things these days, these too have become more on the rapidly growing list of “offensive” things to say. And while I am very familiar with the far too common “mommy wars”, we need to not let those things get in the way of truth. Human breastmilk is the best food for human babies but all the more are the benefits of babe receiving that through the act of breastfeeding.
While it is commonly known that breastmilk is full of antibodies, what is not known by as many is that through suckling, the baby’s body communicates to the mother’s body, telling her what s/he is in need of specifically. The breasts do not just throw out random anti-bodies. According to Science News, that while a baby is nursing, s/he backwashes saliva into the breast. “This backwash may actually cause a mother’s body to create made-to-order immune factors that are delivered back to the baby in milk, some scientists think. So far, that concept remains a hypothesis, cautions biologist Katie Hinde of Arizona State University in Tempe, ‘but one that remains very likely given all that we know about physiology.’” If a mother is bottle feeding her child breastmilk, then her body is not going through this process with her child’s body, thus her child still misses out on that which s/he may be needing the most to stay healthiest.
Not only does the act of breastfeeding create a natural “vaccine” for the child, according to Action Against Hunger, long term breastfeeding has been linked to preventing “an estimated 823,000 child deaths every year.” That is HUGE!!! “The new Lancet research, which is the most comprehensive analysis of breastfeeding studies ever done, found that children who are breastfed 'for longer' have higher IQs, lower death rates, and less risk of infection than children who are breastfed for shorter periods, or not at all.” Not only are these are benefits lost by bottle feeding, negative risks become higher with bottle fed formula, especially in poor areas of the nation and world.
A common health issue with children is recurring ear infections. I suffered terribly with these, including ruptured ear drums and even needing surgery in late elementary school to repair a hole in one. I have been so thankful that out of the 10 + years of being a mom, we have had zero ear infections. Apart from the baby backwash increasing the needed anti-bodies in mother's milk, another benefit to breastfeeding over bottle feeding, is that the physical act of nursing may play a role in decreasing the risk of ear infection by keeping the pressure in the baby's ears equalized. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology says that, aside from using fully vented bottles that function similarly to breastfeeding in regards to pressure regulation, bottle feeding can cause a build up of negative pressure pulling fluid into the eustachian tubes and middle ear thus causing ear infections. Bottle feeding requires baby to lay in a 45 degree angle (or more upright) so to reduce the likelihood of formula being pushed into the eustachian tube. While breastmilk can still potentially back up into these tubes, because of it's antibacterial properties, it is far less likely to be of problem.
Obesity in adults is on the rise. But, unlike ever before, we are seeing this epidemic spread to our children, and with it childhood diabetes. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child's life. Not only does this postpone the introduction of non-healthy food options (ie. french fries and chicken nuggets) but, "Protein and total energy intake, as well as the amount of energy metabolised, are higher among formula-fed infants relative to breastfed (14,15), leading to increased body weight during the neonatal period (10) and data suggests that both higher protein intake (16) and weight gain (17) early in life is positively associated with the development of obesity later in childhood." BMC Public Health published an article with these findings, "Twenty-five studies with a total of 226,508 participants were included in this meta-analysis. The studies’ publication dates ranged from 1997 to 2014, and they examined the population of 12 countries. Results showed that breastfeeding was associated with a significantly reduced risk of obesity in children (AOR = 0.78; 95% CI: 0.74, 0.81). Categorical analysis of 17 studies revealed a dose-response effect between breastfeeding duration and reduced risk of childhood obesity." Breastfeeding also limits food intake. Despite how small a baby's stomach is, bottle feeding babies can still manage to put down far more ounces than breastfed babies in one feeding. This teaches a child to overeat from the beginning.
The list of health reasons for why breastfeeding is better than bottle feeding go on and on. But it is not just physical health that breastfeeding benefits but emotional and relational health as well. The benefits of kangaroo care are well known and breastfeeding carries those benefits long into the child's growth. Skin to skin contact is important for people regardless of age. And while a mother can look lovingly into the eyes of her bottle feeding child, more often than not, my experience has been that it is easier to pass the baby off to someone else or to hand the bottle to the baby or prop the bottle up and forgo human interaction altogether. Even in the study my son and I participated in, it was mentioned that one of the findings that had been made in another study showed that mothers who breastfed their babies interacted far more with their children than the mothers who bottle fed. As we see technology improving, we also see relationships growing more and more distant. Is handing our child a tablet or phone any different than handing them a bottle if the intent is to free up our hands so we can do something else? This recent post by Victoria Prooday, goes into great detail of some very startling and eye opening reports in regards to our children's emotional health. Emotional health starts from the very beginning of our children's lives. Breastfeeding helps lay a solid foundation to that.
When my daughter asked me a few weeks ago why I didn't bottle feed, her eyes got wide and then glossed over but the point was made. Straight from the tap is not just for beer and soda! The benefits of breastfeeding are quite numerous. The breast is superior to the bottle. Human skin and contact can never be replaced by rubber or silicone. However, a breastfeeding mother is not superior to a bottle feeding mother. And that is where the mommy wars get the priorities out of focus. Not every woman can breastfeed. There may be health complications or the mother may be on medications that can harm her baby via the breastmilk. Some mothers adopt babies. Some may have to work. Some simply choose to not. And sometimes, nature just does not work how it is supposed to. "Breast is best" should not be offensive and this should not be grounds for mothers to battle on. By whatever means, please just make sure you feed your baby. Just understand the pros and the cons and whatever you choose, be secure in that.