This post was originally published on St. Louis American

By Denise Hooks-Anderson 

When I was young, I thought it very strange to see women in public nursing their babies. I now look back on my ignorance and wish I had received better education regarding the benefits of breastfeeding and how important breastfeeding was for the development of babies.

During my first pregnancy I decided to nurse my baby but did not produce much milk. Furthermore, some of my maintenance medications for lupus were not recommended during breastfeeding. Therefore, I could not nurse for very long. However, I learned from that experience and was able to nurse a little longer with my second child and produced a lot more breast milk.

My second experience with breastfeeding was more successful because our health systems had evolved and provided more assistance to new mothers. I utilized a lactation consultant who helped me learn techniques to get my baby to latch on, different styles of holding my baby while nursing, and the consultant encouraged me to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. That education and guidance made a difference in my confidence. I was also comfortable nursing my baby anywhere and was able to pump when I returned to work. 

Breastfeeding is not some new health trend. There was a time when breastfeeding was the norm. I’m sure we are all aware of how slave mothers were often required to also nurse the “master’s” children. These women were known as wet nurses. There is evidence of wet nursing as early as 2000 BC and it extended well into the 20th century. In certain cultures, women of a certain status would demand wet nurses. During the Renaissance Period, history records reveal that some wet nurses had contracts and were actually paid. During the mid-19th century, bottles and nipples were refined and a transition from breastfeeding to infant feeding using animal’s milk was seen. 

Present day formulas are much safer than the substances used decades ago but breast milk is still considered the best source of infant nutrition for most babies. Breast milk antibodies help protect babies from illnesses. The antibodies help strengthen the baby’s immune system. As the infant develops, breast milk changes to meet the needs of the growing infant. 

Breastfeeding is also very convenient. With nursing, there is no need to get up in the middle of the night to mix formulas. Mothers can nurse their infants anywhere and anytime. Breastfeeding can also help soothe infants when traveling which often disrupts an infant’s routine. Not to mention that breastfeeding is cheaper. Infant formula can be expensive and as we saw these past several months, there is also potential for formula shortages. 

Mothers also reap breastfeeding benefits such as weight loss and risk reduction from breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. There is research to support the strengthening of mother-baby bonds with breastfeeding as well. Some of my patients view breastfeeding as a gift that they are providing their babies to improve their futures. Research suggests that breastfed babies have fewer ear infections, less obesity, fewer lower respiratory infections, and a host of other benefits as well. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months of life and can be continued in conjunction with food once food is introduced into the diet. Advocating for breastfeeding is not an indictment against women who may not be able to breastfeed due to other reasons. Infant formula is a good alternative for infant nutrition. If you are experiencing any nursing difficulties, please contact your local lactation specialist.

Your family doctor,

Denise Hooks-Anderson, MD, FAAFP