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Maternity & Nursing Advice

Is breast really best? The age-old debate

Breastfeeding isn’t a big deal? It almost sounds like blasphemy. Indeed, the message ‘breast is best’ has long been advocated by the World Health Organisation and other presiding health bodies, permeating parenting circles. They propose mothers should feed newborns breast milk for the initial six months to reap the health benefits for themselves and their growing babes. But the notion women must breastfeed is now being challenged. It’s a complicated, sensitive and even politicised issue – and one everyone has an opinion on, too. To set the record straight, we’ve decided to explore both sides of this age-old debate: is breast really best? 

Advantages  

The ‘breast is best’ rhetoric is one we’ve been fed by the media and health organisation for years. And, in many respects, it does hold up. This very natural biological function offers a slew of health benefits for both women and their blossoming babes, as we’ve outlined below. 

Health benefits for baby

Short-term 

Breast-milk is brimming with fatty acids and antibodies, making it nature’s perfect food to support your little babe’s growing immune system. Science tells us breast milk may even have the capacity to offer baby protection from a number of health risks:

  • Stomach problems, like vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Colds and infections, in particular, upper respiratory infections
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Ear infections
  • Eczema
  • Asthma

Long-term

The advantages of breastfeeding don’t just end at infancy; nursing your little gobbler is thought to offer some life-long support for baby, too. The lasting impact of breastfeeding may include a reduced risk of:

  • High cholesterol
  • Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity

Research is still inconclusive, but there’s some evidence pointing to breastfeeding making your babe smarter, too. The fatty acids in the milk are said to be behind this brain boost. 

Health benefits for mum

Weight loss

Newsflash: the well-worn cliché of breastfeeding supporting weight-loss is true. Milk production burns around 300 to 500 calories a day, meaning nursing mums have a much easier time shedding pregnancy weight in a healthy, sustainable way – that is, one without the need for a fad diet.

Supports post-delivery healing

Breastfeeding can also help your body heal after delivery. When you nurse your tiny babe, your body releases oxytocin, which encourages the uterus to contract and reduce post-delivery blood loss. Better still, breastfeeding assists your uterus in returning to its normal size much quicker – around six weeks postpartum, compared to ten weeks if you don’t breastfeed.

Lowers risk of certain health conditions

Research suggests breastfeeding may offer women some protection against developing certain cancers in later life, such as ovarian and breast cancer. It may reduce the risk of postmenopausal osteoporosis, too. The latest findings have even linked breastfeeding to a reduction in the risk of having a stroke.

May assist with emotional wellbeing

Some scholars have purported that women who choose not to breastfeed may be more vulnerable to bouts of postpartum depression. It has been suggested the hormonal shifts relating to breastfeeding are responsible for this. However, the reasons behind this are still foggy and unclear. More research is certainly required.

Strengthens the bond with your baby

Many women name this as the numero uno benefit of breastfeeding. Nursing cultivates a special, unique bond between mum and baby. You and your blossoming baby exchange noises, snuggles and looks during an intimate breastfeeding session. And as a mother, it can be incredibly empowering to see your little one thriving on your breast milk alone.

It’s free!

Breastfeeding is basically free. It’s entirely possible to breastfeed without fancy equipment or supplies. But even if you did decide to invest in a nursing bra, a pair of super comfy nursing pyjamas, or a breast pump, you’ll still save a small fortune due to the extortionate cost of feeding formula – roughly £45 every month to be precise. For parents concerned about the financial implications of raising a child, breastfeeding may offer a simple solution.

Disadvantages

People are very quick to discuss the benefits of breastfeeding, but what about the risks involved? It seems this side of the coin hasn’t been given as much airtime. In truth, though, breastfeeding takes time to master and can amplify some of the hardest aspects of parenthood – the sleep deprivation, the lack of time to yourself, the returning-to-work conundrum. Here’s why you may choose bottle over breast – and shouldn’t feel guilty about it, either. 

Pain and trouble adjusting

The first few weeks of breastfeeding are usually the most problematic: cracked, painful and bleeding nipples (mastitis – an inflammatory infection of the breast – affects one in 10 women); issues with milk supply; and adjusting to the 24/7 demands of caring for a hungry babe. Plus, many women are still recovering from huge physical and emotion implication of giving birth. The exhaustion and challenges surrounding recovery can make breastfeeding all the more taxing.

Loss of bodily autonomy

Breastfeeding ties a woman exclusively to her babe. And while plenty relish this unique responsibility, it’s an onus that falls entirely on mum. Many women complain about losing ownership over their bodies, experiencing issues with self-esteem, body image and sex life. Oh, and what about the retuning-to-work conundrum? Or the issue of unequal parenting?

Lack of social support

Despite health organisations advocating breastfeeding, the lack of community support can make it needlessly difficult and isolating. Some women may experience shaming for breastfeeding in public, a lack of support from a partner or spouse, or judgement from loved ones and even strangers who oppose breastfeeding – obstacles that may cultivate a toxic environment surrounding breastfeeding.

Questions over the health benefits

In recent years, people have questioned the health benefits of breastfeeding. What many studies fail to acknowledge is two very important factors: education and income. Breastfeeding tends to be more commonplace among higher-income families – most likely because these women can afford to take a longer maternity leave (another reason to question the ‘breastfeeding is free’ argument – this only holds true if mums can afford to take an extended maternity leave). And more financial stable people generally reap the fruits of better health, thanks to reasons unrelated to breastfeeding (drinking less, eating better, and exercising more, etc.). In this light, it’s unsurprising that breastfed babies tend to grow up healthier – some might say its a badge of being middle-class.

Final thoughts

The bottom line is that it’s up to you. No your parents. Not societal pressure. Not even the World Health Organisation. If you’ve thoroughly assessed the pros and cons on each side of the coin, you have every right to exercise your autonomy as a mother and make an informed decision on how to feed your little one. After all, you did carry the munchkin for nine months, so – while your partner and friends can advise and suggest – the buck ultimately stops with you. As long as baby is healthy and well nourished, surely that’s all that matters? 

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