World Breastfeeding Week: Breast milk boosts child's immunity, helps develop baby's brains

There are several studies and counter studies challenging the benefits of breastfeeding across the world. Be it the long-term impact on cognitive development of a child, the myth around breast feeding helping reduce the chances of breast cancer, or developing a maternal instinct. With World Breastfeeding Week (August 1 to 7) being celebrated in more than 170 countries to encourage breastfeeding and help improve the health of babies around the world, Firstpost takes a look some of the advantages of breastfeeding for the child and the mother as well as some of the myths associated with it.

What is World Breastfeeding Week?
On 1 August 1990, a group of policymakers at a WHO/UNICEF meeting in Florence, Italy, produced and adopted a declaration to promote breastfeeding across the world. The declaration, hence known as the Innocenti Declaration was the first such attempt at a global level to promote, protect and support breastfeeding. World Breastfeeding Week is a celebration of that Innocenti declaration (and aims to help achieve the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding developed jointly by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in 2002).

 World Breastfeeding Week: Breast milk boosts childs immunity, helps develop babys brains

Representational image. Reuters

From 2016, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), which organises the event, has transformed it from a celebration for one week in a year into a showcase of the efforts made to protect, promote and support breastfeeding for all 51 weeks in a year.

The focus of the current edition of the World Breastfeeding Week, which turned 25 in 2017 is about working together for the common good and will call upon advocates, activists, decision-makers and celebrants to help promote policies that make it easier for women to breastfeed.

Advantages of breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is the best way to provide newborns with the nutrients they need. WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding until a baby is six months old, and continued breastfeeding with the addition of nutritious complementary foods for up to two years or beyond. :

For the baby:

  • Breast milk is the healthiest form of milk for babies. The colostrum (a yellow, watery pre-milk) that breasts make during the first few days after birth helps in development and functioning of the digestive system of the baby.
  • Breast milk is easily digestible and breast-fed babies tend to have less constipation and fewer feeding problems compared to bottle-fed babies.
  • Though the long-term impact of breastfeeding in developing cognitive skills are still debated, there is evidence that the fatty acids in the breast milk help develop baby’s brain.
  • Breastfed babies are at lower risk of infections, diarrhoea, asthma, obesity, allergies, and colic.
  • The antibodies in the breast milk develop baby’s immunity, which is responsible to fight sickness.
  • Breast-fed babies have a significantly lower risk of a condition referred to as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) where typically the infant is found dead after having been put to bed, and exhibits no signs of suffering.

For the mother

  • Breastfeeding helps create a unique emotional bond between a mother and child.
  • It is always available and is cheaper compared with bottle feed.
  • There is evidence to suggest that breastfeeding helps reduce the incidence of post delivery depression.
  • Breastfeeding releases oxytocin, a hormone which helps the uterus contract and return to its normal size more quickly and thus helps in reducing excessive bleeding after delivery.
  • It helps lose weight faster.
  • Breastfeeding reduces the risk of developing breast cancer and evidence is accumulating to suggest that breastfeeding helps reducing risk of developing uterine and ovarian cancer.
  • Equally, there is evidence that breastfeeding helps reduce the incidence of post delivery depression

Myths around breastfeeding

While the benefits of breastfeeding have been known for over centuries, there are also several misconceptions that have emerged around some supposed benefits of the practices including its impact on breast cancer. Here is a list of some common myths surrounding breastfeeding:

  • There is a misconception that breast cancer does not occur during pregnancy and lactation. Breast cancer can indeed occur during pregnancy and lactation. Being ‘breast aware’ is absolutely important even during pregnancy and lactation. Should there be any new changes, a specialist consultation is essential to rule out any abnormality.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that breast cancer is transmitted through the milk of the mother. However, breast feeding should not be given whilst the mother is receiving chemotherapy as the drugs can harm the baby.
  • Breastfeeding is also not recommended during the active phase of tuberculosis as infection can be passed on to the baby. Harmful effects of some medicines taken by the mother can be transmitted through breast milk. It is always advisable to check with the doctor before breastfeeding. Women taking drugs are advised not to breastfeed.
  • Many women believe that breastfeeding should be stopped when there a breast infection (lactation induced mastitis). The fact remains that breastfeeding should not be stopped when there is breast infection (mastitis). In fact, breast feeding keeps the ducts patent and may help improve breast infection. It is important to see a specialist as soon as there are signs of breast infection. Antibiotics are initially used to control the infection. If an abscess has developed, an ultrasound guided aspiration of abscess should be attempted. If all the conservative measures fail, a formal incision and drainage of abscess should be performed to evacuate the pus.
  • Screening mammograms should not be done during pregnancy and lactation. A screening mammogram is the X-ray of the breasts for asymptomatic women to detect early impalpable breast cancer. Although the radiation dose from a Mammogram is small (equivalent to a dental X-ray), it is best to avoid radiation exposure to the fetus or infant.
  • According to World health Organisation (WHO) recommendations released in 2009, in low and middle income Countries, HIV Positive mothers can breastfeed provided they commence taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) from 14th week of pregnancy to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV. This therapy must be continued through till the end of breastfeeding. WHO recommends that mothers known to be HIV positive should exclusively breastfeed their infants until six months of age introducing appropriate complementary foods thereafter and continue breastfeeding for the first 12 months of life. The clear message is that breastfeeding is a good option for every baby including HIV positive mothers when they have access to antiretroviral therapy (ART).

P Raghu Ram is the president of the Association of Breast Surgeons of India.


Updated Date: Aug 03, 2017 18:20:13 IST