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.
How long should you breastfeed? The American Academy of Pediatrics advises exclusive breastfeeding (that is, only mother's milk -- no water, formula, or other liquids) for six months, followed by breastfeeding throughout a baby's first year of life and beyond as long as both mother and child desire.
But, Aponte says, even just two months of breastfeeding after birth can give both you and your child some important health benefits. You shouldn't worry if you can't go beyond that point, he says. "You are still giving your baby a generous head start in life and that can make a big difference in long- and short-term health," Aponte says.
8 Reasons to Consider Breastfeeding
Still not convinced breastfeeding is right for you? Here are eight more important medical findings you should consider.
- Breastfeeding could increase your baby's intelligence level. Researchers in one study followed a group of babies into their teens and 20s, documenting intellectual development and cognition along the way. The result: Babies who were breastfed were simply smarter.
- Breastfed babies have better pain relief and less stress. In one study, doctors found that both crying and "grimacing" -- expressions of pain and stress -- were dramatically reduced in babies who were breastfed, compared to those who were not.
Heart rate was also lower in breastfed babies, even when subjected to stressful or painful medical procedures. What's more, researchers report that preventing stress in an infant's early life may have positive benefits on how important brain chemicals are processed later in life, which may in turn help him or her better cope with stress and anxiety.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also points out that breastfeeding during a painful procedure for baby, such as a needle stick, provides pain relief.
- Breastfeeding can help your child build better bones. That means your child will develop a stronger skeletal frame. Doctors in one study showed that at age 8, children who were breastfed three months or longer had a stronger bone density in their neck and spine than those who were breastfeed less than three months, or not at all.
- Breastfed babies get plenty of cholesterol.Compared to baby formula, mother's milk is packed with cholesterol. And while that's not so great for adults, cholesterol for babies is needed for proper growth and development.
Some research shows that the high cholesterol content in mother's milk may help nutritionally program a newborn's metabolism in a way that reduces susceptibility to high cholesterol and other dietary fat problems later in life.
- Breastfeeding may control obesity later on. Research shows how high levels of the protein hormone leptin -- abundant in mother's milk -- influences a baby's growth and body composition development.
Ultimately this can affect an infant's ability to be satisfied by food and the ability to self-regulate caloric intake. The end result: Breastfeeding may help your baby control weight and protect them against obesity later in life. Other studies show that breastfed babies also generally have lower insulin levels, which in turn can also help control obesity.
- Breastfeeding may mean less risk of asthma. If your baby is at risk for asthma or other respiratory ailments, breastfeeding may offer some protection. A group of Australian researchers found that breastfeeding had a protective effect against asthma even when the mother herself had this breathing disorder.
In another study, doctors found that even a few short weeks of breastfeeding following birth offered some measure of protection against the development of asthma.
- Breastfed babies have stronger immune systems.Because your breast milk contains an array of disease-preventing immune factors, doctors have long known that nursing can protect your baby from a variety of illnesses. Recent studies show that protective effects of breast milk may be permanent. Even after baby is weaned, the immune system remains stronger than in infants who were not breastfed.
- Breastfeeding cuts the risk of allergies. If you're looking to protect your baby from multiple allergic diseases, including allergic rhinitis or even atopic dermatitis, breastfeeding can do it. Researchers found that babies who were breastfed exclusively during the first two years of life were less likely to have any of these problems.