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Making The Breastfeeding Decision

Breastfeeding is healthy for mother and baby. Here's why.
WebMD Feature

It's probably no accident that the declining interest in breastfeeding collided head on with the birth of the American working mom.

As more women entered the workforce, more were encouraged to abandon breastfeeding in favor of formula. And for a time, a good majority did just that.

But today, the pendulum has swung again. Breastfeeding is now enjoying a rebirth in popularity, thanks in part to the U.S. government's Blueprint for Action on Breastfeeding awareness campaign, launched in 2000. Its sole purpose is to educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding.

"Most of today's new mothers were not breastfed and many of their own mothers were not breastfed," says Suzanne Haynes, MD, chairwoman of the federal Health and Human Services Commission's subcommittee on breastfeeding.

"So we found there was a great need for information not only on the health benefits but also on some basic education on how to breastfeed and how it can be accomplished, even if you are a working mom."

Research about breastfeeding continues to show important health benefits for baby and mother. Mother's milk can offer the baby a cache of protective effects, including reducing the risk of infections in the gastrointestinal, urinary, and respiratory tracts, lowering the rate of ear infections, reducing diarrhea and the risk of SIDS (sudden-infant death syndrome), and helping to protect against allergies, diabetes, and even obesity later in life.

"Even if a mother breastfeeds for just a few weeks after giving birth, she is giving her baby an enormous health boost with positive effects that can be seen almost immediately, as well as long- term benefits that may help her child remain healthier clear into adulthood," says San Diego pediatrician Audrey Naylor, MD.

Breastfeeding Is Good for Mom, Too

But that's not all. Doctors say breastfeeding is also beneficial to mom, with both long- and short-term benefits.

"In the short term, breastfeeding increases the production of oxytocin, a hormone that not only encourages milk production, but also helps a mother feel more relaxed and calm," says Adam Aponte, MD, chairman of pediatrics and ambulatory care at North General Hospital in New York City. He notes that breastfeeding also helps a woman's uterus contract and return to its prepregnancy state.

Recent studies also show that the effect of breastfeeding hormones on the uterus may help reduce a mother's risk of postpartum hemorrhage (massive uterine bleeding). And, according to Naylor, preliminary evidence shows that nursing may even help protect some women from postpartum depression.

In addition, nursing your baby for even a few months can reduce your risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer, as well as potentially help strengthen your bones -- which in turn may offer some protection against osteoporosis.

"There is no question that breastfeeding has some important health benefits for mom -- and because it is so beneficial for baby, it's really a win-win situation. A woman is doing something good for herself and for her baby at the same time," says Naylor.

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