Monday, August 2, 2010

Re-Normalize Breastfeeding: A first step for life-long health

This post is part of the Breastfeeding Blog Carnival hosted by The Leaky B@@b. It's World Breastfeeding Week and the carnival theme is "Perspectives: Breastfeeding from Every Angle."  Visit The Leaky B@@b for more perspectives on breastfeeding.

Sadly, the United States has become known for being one of the fattest nations in the world. "During the past 20 years there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States. In 2008, only one state (Colorado) had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%" ( Most of us are aware that obesity contributes to a number of other health problems ranging from added stress on bones and joints to type 2 diabetes and heart diseases. Now more than ever, good nutrition has become the focus of attention for many Americans, including First Lady Michelle Obama. Good nutrition for each of us starts in the womb. So much of our development in those nine months depends upon the good eating habits of our mothers but what happens beyond that? Formula manufacturer's would have us believe that they have come up with a solution for all of us who have to return to work, hate pumping or simply struggle with the natural act of breastfeeding but is it really the perfect solution or a slippery slope? If what they are selling is good nutrition, then why is it chocolate flavored?

There are numerous reasons to breastfeed ranging from emotional connectivity to health benefits for the mother. This is a look solely at the nutritional benefits as they relate to the infant.  Formula is food made with science therefore; it is not natural to an infant's diet. Infants, just like adults, can have difficulty digesting ingredients that are unfamiliar to the body (remember 'Trans fats'?). The proteins in formula are made from cow's milk, easily digested by calves, but human infants' stomach's take time to adjust. Breast milk is perfectly formulated for infants. There are over 150 ingredients in breast milk that cannot be produced synthetically. Of these 150 ingredients, some of the most important are the mother's antibodies. These antibodies become the infants' defense against disease while the immune system is still developing. Breast milk has been shown to protect infants against illnesses such as rotavirus infections, ear infections, and upper and lower respiratory tract infections. Breast milk also has amazing transformative properties. It actually changes over time to suit the needs of the infant as s/he grows. This is something formula cannot do. As many lactivists describe it, breast milk is 'live' while formula is...well...not. Research shows that breastfeeding saves on health care costs. Breastfed infants typically need fewer sick care visits, prescriptions, and hospitalizations than formula fed infants. Breast feeding mother's also miss less work. Their infants are sick less often so medical costs are lower and employees are more productive. The conclusion one can draw from this information: Breastfed infants are healthier, in general, than formula fed infants.

Formula isn't inferior for lack of trying. Formula makers have been attempting to improve their product since development began in the 1860's. Most recently, DHA and ARA have been added. DHA is believed to be an important component in brain and nerve development. DHA deficiencies are associated with cognitive decline, which occurs in people with diseases like Alzheimer's. Additionally, severely depressed individuals show a depleted level of DHA in the cerebral cortex. As a result of these findings, DHA is being added to many foods and a supplement is recommended for pregnant and nursing women. Adding DHA to infant formula would seem like a good idea however; once again it is synthetically derived and therefore difficult to digest. Cornucopia, a watchdog group, upon request for information from the FDA, found a number of adverse reaction reports concerning formula with the DHA additive. Severe gastrointestinal problems were reported. These problems resulted in 'failure to thrive', acute dehydration from diarrhea and other symptoms including emotion distress for both the infants and their families. Symptoms resulted in highly-invasive medical testing and procedures and hospitalizations. Upon switching to formulas without the DHA additive, the problems (in most cases) were resolved. As long as a breastfeeding mother is eating a diet containing DHA rich foods or is taking a supplement, her infant will get all the DHA his or her body needs for healthy development. To read more about Cornucopia and their findings about breastfeeding, formula and DHA go to

An additional benefit to breastfeeding is the frequency of feeding. Breastfed infants need to eat more frequently than formula fed infants. This may not seem like a benefit if you are a sleep deprived mother but, more frequent feedings through the night translate into a decreased risk of SIDS. Scientists also know that IgA, found in breast milk, has a binding affect on bacterial toxins, such as staphylococcal enterotoxin C and Clostridium perfringens enterotoxin A, which have both been implicated in SIDS. Breast milk is also rich in long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and other nutrients, which promotes faster development of the central nervous system of the infants. This could be another explanation for why breastfeeding helps prevent SIDS. (South Med J 94(7):704-71, 2001. © 2001 Southern Medical Association) Frequent feedings also affect metabolism. Any one who has ever been on a 'diet' has been instructed to eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day. A healthy metabolic rate in infancy may translate into a healthier metabolic rate in childhood and on into adulthood.

About 2% of mothers are physiologically unable to breastfeed, yet only about 77% of infants are ever breastfed and only 50% are still breastfed at the age of 6 months. This means about 20% of new mothers never try to breastfeed and roughly another 30% give it up before their child reaches 6 months. Young mothers (particularly under the age of 20) and those in low-income households were most likely to formula feed, rather than breastfeed. ( Sadly, these are also the individuals who have the least access to adequate health care and information regarding nutrition and wellness. The cycle of poor education, poor nutrition, poor health continues from generation to generation and our society never gets any healthier. For the first time in history, future generations will actually have shorter life expectancies than the proceeding generations. This is why re-normalizing breastfeeding in the United States is of critical importance. Formula should not be the first choice but rather, the last resort. Not only do health care providers and government aid resources need to educate and promote breastfeeding as the the healthy, normal way to feed an infant but communities at large need support breastfeeding mothers, regardless of their socioeconomic demograph. Breastfeeding is an infants very first step towards life-long health.

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