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Healthy Outlook

The Benefits of Breastfeeding

By Francine Jolton, MD

Thursday, July 25, 2013

As a pediatrician and as a mother of three who breastfed all her kids, I know how important breast milk is to a baby's health and development. Consider all the health perks: Breastfeeding is a natural and low-cost way to help reduce a child's risk of infection, chronic disease and obesity. If that wasn't enough, it also helps mothers lose the weight they gained during pregnancy.

But while I'm an advocate of breastfeeding and its benefits, I'm also a realist. Not everyone can strictly adhere to the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation to exclusively feed children breast milk for the first six months of their lives. I get it – breastfeeding can be physically demanding and inconvenient, especially for moms returning to work.

However, I think many moms out there are giving up before they have to. I see a lot of mothers stop exclusively breastfeeding their babies after only two weeks. Why?

A lot of women fear they're not producing enough milk to properly nourish their infants. These fears seem to be confirmed when the baby loses weight, although it is perfectly normal for infants to lose up to 10 percent of their birth weight in the first week as they adjust to life outside the womb. At this point, many moms will turn to formula, which, especially at this early stage, undermines their ability to produce milk.

I urge my patients to do everything in their power to exclusively breastfeed through the first six weeks of their babies' lives. Those first few weeks are so critical to "getting the milk moving," as lactation specialists say. Get through those first six weeks and you'll have established the foundation to make it through the six months after birth.

Still, even if someone makes it through those first six weeks, there are other challenges. Going back to work presents logistical complications for mothers such as finding the time and a place to pump while they're at their jobs. Fortunately, in California employers are legally required to accommodate women who need to pump breast milk. Of course, I'm sure some employers are more supportive than others, but overall I think they want to do the right thing. I think women can help them do the right thing by contacting their bosses before they return to work to discuss what arrangements can be made.

There are also mothers who simply don't realize there are support services out there to help them succeed. For instance, Contra Costa residents can call the health department's free breastfeeding advice line 24 hours a day at 1-866-878-7767. And now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, health insurers are required to pay for lactation consultations and breast pumps.

Obviously, breastfeeding takes commitment. For those who can't make it work, there's no shame in that – just make sure you're not stopping for the wrong reasons. Given all the health benefits breastfeeding offers baby and mother, the rewards are huge.

To learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding and events planned for World Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 1-7), visit cchealth.org/wic/breastfeeding/

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at theairdoctor@gmail.com. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.
About the Author

Dr. Jolton is the chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center.