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Midwifery, Pregnancy & Birth :: Breastfeeding

Midwife and Doula Services encourages all new mothers to give their babies optimal, not just adequate, nutrition during the first year of life and beyond. Breastfeeding is the best way to provide this optimal start. Unfortunately, new mothers today don't often have the support they need to establish an ongoing breastfeeding relationship with their babies. Our clients can take advantage of breastfeeding counseling during the postpartum period. Another resource is La Leche League (LLL), where you can get mother-to-mother support and general breastfeeding information.

You've Got What it Takes to Make a Healthy Baby

Jeanne Weakland, a Des Moines area La Leche League leader and former Midwife and Doula Services client, recently shared some thoughts about the benefits, challenges, and issues that face breastfeeding women, as well as her experience with LLL.

How did you get involved in LLL?

I attended my first La Leche League meeting when my first son was a newborn and I was searching for a supportive environment. I was amazed at the level of comfort I felt at that first meeting. I was still trying to figure out how to nurse my baby in public and it was such a relief for me to be in a room with women who were nourishing their babies and toddlers without having to feel self-conscious. Like many women having children today, I did not grow up around breastfeeding and had never actually seen anyone breastfeed, with the exception of one sister. The initial benefit of attending meetings was simply the way breastfeeding was portrayed and practiced in such a natural, positive way. This eventually gave me the courage to feed my baby in public without feeling as though it was something to hide. LLL also provided me with accurate, up-to-date breastfeeding information and support in my decision to mother through breastfeeding.

So many women don't have breastfeeding role models or an experienced breastfeeding mother to encourage them through any rough spots. What are other common difficulties women in the midwest face while breastfeeding? How does LLL help them?

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face in this country are the number of myths that exist surrounding breastfeeding. Some common myths that women believe, or are even told from many health care providers, are that they have to restrict their diet, can't take any medications, can't produce enough milk, etc. There are many myths that can undermine a new mother's confidence and portray breastfeeding in a negative, restrictive light.

Another barrier for many nursing mothers is returning to work and breastfeeding. Often in the midwest, and other regions, employers do not provide working mothers the time, space, and privacy to pump milk for their baby while they are separated. Unfortunately, employers are sometimes not aware of the huge benefits breastfeeding provides. Some of these are a significantly reduced number of sick days (breastfed babies are healthier), more content, satisfied, and therefore productive workers, and decreased health care costs for both mom and baby (breastfeeding is healthier for mom, too!), While some employers can be very supportive, I would encourage women in all work settings to be advocates for breastfeeding by communicating their needs and the benefits to their employers.

In the midwest our culture tends to be much more conservative in terms of nursing in public. One of the main reasons women feel so uncomfortable about feeding their babies in public is because they have never seen this modeled by a mother, sister, aunt, friend or even a stranger. Women at meetings often share how different it feels to be in other regions of our country where nourishing your baby in public is commonplace. In our western culture we also sexualize the breast, which makes women feel that feeding their child is something that should be done behind closed doors. LLL does such a wonderful service in helping mothers become comfortable nursing in public in a way that fits for them. Ideas for nursing discreetly are often discussed, or simply having helpful responses ready can help women to feel more confident in public.

What are some of the benefits of breastfeeding? Any that are particularly surprising to new mothers?

It is so important for moms to know that the benefits far outweigh any challenges they may encounter. The benefits range from the important physical benefits to the amazing emotional and spiritual benefits that come form sharing a breastfeeding relationship with your child. Breast milk is baby's best immunity against illness and disease. Breastfeed babies are healthier physically with less ear infections, gastrointestinal problems, and a lower rate of childhood cancers and illnesses, such as asthma. In fact, when a mother is dealing with a bout of the flu or a cold, her body instantly produces specific antibodies that protect her baby from the same illness. If the baby does become ill, it will most likely be a much milder case. This is because breast milk is a miraculous living fluid, with live cells designed exactly for a baby's needs. Breast milk is easier on baby's digestive system because it does not contain anything artificial or unnatural. The advantages of this are a happier, more contented baby, diapers that are non-offensive, and a decreased risk of allergies Mothers who nurse their babies have a reduced risk of breast and ovarian, and other types of cancer. One amazing fact is that breast milk actually kills cancer cells in a child's body. Also, the rate of obesity in adolescence is decreased in a breastfed baby. Another positive and favorite advantage is that breastfeeding moms loose more weight by 3-6 months than formula feeding moms who consume less calories. This is due to the fact that breastfeeding burns 200-500 calories a day. These benefits, and many others, are dose dependent, meaning that the longer a mother breastfeeds her child, the greater the benefit.

A surprising fact is that the composition of breast milk changes with each feeding, so no matter what time of day it is, or what season, mother's milk will adjust to the specific needs of her baby. This is true for the nursing newborn or the nursing toddler- a mother's body will adjust to provide exactly what is needed nutritionally. So, as a child's vitamin and mineral requirements change, so will the concentration of these important nutrients in breast milk . One theory for this is that the baby's saliva signals specific nutritional requirements to the mother.

One of the best benefits is due to the release of prolactin, the "mothering hormone". Prolactin is responsible for producing milk, but a wonderful side effect is that warm, relaxed, soothing feeling that mothers and babies (and nursing toddlers) get when the baby nurses. It is this very state that enhances bonding and is nature's way of ensuring the attachment of mother and child.

In a spiritual sense, mothers often share that breastfeeding deepens their sense of connection to life and those around them. It can give her a greater sense of meaning, and more opportunity time to hold, nurture and nourish her child. Breastfeeding can help a mother heal from a difficult birth, increase her confidence in her mothering ability, improve self-esteem, and help with postpartum depression. In fact, there are so many advantages that volumes have been written on this very topic.

What do you say to women who have friends or family who aren't supportive of their efforts to breastfeed?

I encourage women to keep attending La Leche League meetings! La Leche League was founded on mother-to-mother support and it continues to provide women with a warm, non-judging atmosphere in which they can share their concerns, questions, and joys. Often at meetings the topic of how to deal with family, friends, and even strangers who are less than supportive surfaces. It can be helpful and reassuring to know that others have dealt with similar situations.

Sometimes specific ideas are discussed for how to handle criticism or even just general inquiries regarding breastfeeding. Some women find that humor can be a great way to ease any tensions. For example, if someone asks, "How much longer are you going to do that?", a woman might respond, "Oh, another five minutes". Others prefer to use this situation as a chance to educate others on the numerous benefits of breastfeeding. It can be helpful to have responses in mind ahead of time such as "This works for us" or "We're doing what works for our family". These statements don't judge others choices, but simply allow the mother to show confidence in her choices. What is most important is that women don't allow others opinions of breastfeeding to come before their own natural instincts!

How does a woman's choice of maternity caregiver and the child's pediatrician affect the breastfeeding experience?

Choosing knowledgeable and supportive care providers for yourself and your baby is ideal. Many women have this in regards to breastfeeding, and many women simply do not. There are many reasons for this, some of which include misconceptions, myths and various biases regarding breastfeeding. Often when a health professional is supportive gives accurate information, this may have more to do with the practitioner's own breastfeeding experience, their spouse's experience, a friend/relatives influence, or a personal, elective pursuit of more knowledge. Unfortunately, it is often not related to the breastfeeding management facts learned in school- most practitioners will acknowledge that breastfeeding information in nursing or medical school is scarce.

Pregnancy can be an ideal time to ask questions of care providers. It is often helpful to "interview" potential or exisiting providers regarding issues that are important to you. I would encourage women to be proactive in their health care relationships; sharing concerns, asking questions, and trusting their instincts. If information given by a profressional doesn't make sense, have good results, and just plain doesn't "feel" right, then explore what options are available. Some example of this may be sharing updated studies and research with your provider, changing providers, or going to others sources (friends, family, LLL) for adjunct support and information.

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