Posts Tagged ‘infant feeding’

The Importance of Breastfeeding – From the Baby to Society

January 29, 2010

The Importance of Breastfeeding

The newborn and young baby

Breastfeeding is vitally important for the young baby. It is how babies were designed, through millennia of evolution, to be fed, and as such is perfectly tailored to their needs. It provides perfect nutrition, presenting all the necessary components, and delivering them in the most bio-available way. It provides antibodies, protection from disease that helps to support the baby’s immature immune system. Other physical benefits are clear, though the mechanisms are not yet fully understood, for example the much lower rate of SIDS among breastfed, as opposed to artificially-fed, children. The influence of breastmilk on a child’s health is long-term – children breastfed even for just the first few months have much lower rates of diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancer, even years later and on into adulthood.

Psychologically and emotionally, breastfeeding can be the basis for a strong, secure bond between mother and baby. This bonding provides the infant with a sense of security, reassurance, and comfort. Although secure bonding is not absolutely dependent upon breastfeeding, the act of breastfeeding does release certain hormones in both mother and baby (specifically, oxytocin), which are often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and can help induce feelings of calm, peace, and affection. Many studies have researched the link between a secure mother-child bond, and the child’s emotional development later in life. It seems that such a secure bond is the foundation on which all relationships are based, so breastfeeding can be extrapolated to be an important part of learning social skills.

Other social factors may be a bit less clear from the infant’s point of view, but one interesting interpretation is provided by Dr. Brian Palmer, in his presentation ‘The Importance of Breastfeeding as it Relates to Total Health’[i]. The graphic demonstrations of how artificial teats can deform oral and facial characteristics are shocking, and have clear implications for health, but also, I think, have a social aspect. In a society that puts so much emphasis on physical appearance, sucking on a breast will produce more natural facial characteristics, whereas sucking on artificial teats often leads to maloclusions, gapped teeth, and unsightly overbites.

Environmentally, artificially fed infants are at a greater risk of being exposed to environmental contaminants. These can come in the constituents of the artificial milk, the packaging of same, the water used to make up feeds, or leaching from plastic bottles and teats. Exclusive breastfeeding protects from all of these.

Economic factors for the baby relate closely to health issues, particularly at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Being born into poverty – in any nation, no matter how developed – puts you at a much greater risk for all sorts of health problems. Put simply, if you’re poor you’re more likely to be unhealthy. But breastfeeding can effectively undo a lot of this injustice, with its immense positive impact on early years health. Basically, breastfeeding lifts a poor baby out of poverty in the first, vital months, giving it a flying start that will have a positive health impact for years, overcoming many of the negatives due to socio-economic status in an unjust society.[ii]

The Mother

Mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk of some forms of cancer than mothers who do not, and the risk is reduced proportionally in relation to the total length of lactation throughout a mother’s life. Breastfeeding mothers also have better bone density and a lower risk of osteoporosis later in life, and may lose weight more quickly in the post-partum period. Breastfeeding exclusively for at least six months also means a woman is unlikely to ovulate and menstruate in that time, and unlikely to conceive. Reducing the number of menstrual cycles can reduce the risk of anemia, and increased child spacing is an important factor in women’s health (because many, closely-spaced children exact a huge toll on a woman’s body).

Psychological and emotional issues around infant feeding from the mother’s point of view are numerous, complex, and highly contentious. Few would contest the assertion that breastfeeding is emotionally nurturing for the baby, but many have argued that it is emotionally draining, and sometimes even damaging for the mother, with many others claiming the opposite – that it facilitates bonding and love, and eases the emotional transition into motherhood. Personally, I certainly experienced the latter, but I believe that many women in our society have grappled with the former. However I think that when breastfeeding feels emotionally draining, it often isn’t really the nursing that’s the problem, but rather our social expectations and pressures. Then there is the issue of empowerment – many women describe breastfeeding as the most empowering experience of their lives; knowing that they are able to nurture and grow a baby with their own body is a huge psychological boost. But when difficulties are encountered (often, again, as a result of social conditions, lack of support, etc) a mother can find herself feeling defeated. This only serves to reinforce the need for support for the breastfeeding dyad at every level of society.

More has been written about the social difficulties associated with breastfeeding, than about the social importance of it from a mother’s point of view. But as one of the major factors influencing whether a woman will breastfeed is whether she herself was breastfed, and how many women she has seen breastfeeding – aunts, cousins, friends – it could be argued that each mother who breastfeeds is herself socially important, as she helps to normalise it and pass on that positive influence to her children and everyone around her.

The major environmental concern with breastfeeding from a mother’s point of view is broadly similar to that of society as a whole – breastfeeding means less waste and less pollution than artificial feeding, which means a better environment for her children’s future.

Some economic concerns are obvious: breastfeeding is free. Others are less so: many mothers feel that breastfeeding negatively impacts their ability to participate in the wage economy, either because they do not have enough paid maternity leave, cannot take the breastfeeding breaks to which they are entitled upon their return, or cannot leave their children with other carers, or take them into the workplace. These issues need to be addressed at a societal level – more needs to be done to ensure that breastfeeding in no way limits a woman’s economic options. There is also the issue of class and socio-economic status – in Western society, poorer women are much less likely to breastfeed than richer women. As discussed in the baby section above, breastfeeding helps to cancel out socio-economic inequalities in terms of the child’s health, but this also applies to the mother to a certain extent.

The Father

The father also benefits by his child being breastfed. On the one hand, there is the fact that his child will be healthier, and therefore a stronger inheritor of his genetic material. On the more immediate side of things, a healthy, calm baby means that the father will probably get a decent amount of sleep, and not have to take many days off work to help care for an ill child.

People sometimes object to breastfeeding on the grounds that it excludes the father as he cannot participate in feeding, but this is short-sighted. In fact, fathers of breastfed children can bond very closely with their babies, because they may make a special effort to find a way to bond outside of feeding. There are many things a father can do to support the mother and care for the breastfed infant.

Socially, fathers as well as mothers can welcome the minimal disruption presented by breastfeeding. Many family social activities can continue as normal, with a nursling in tow, so fathers can still enjoy outings and socialising.

Environmentally, again, breastfeeding produces much less waste and pollution which obviously benefits the father along with everyone else. It also means fewer bins needing to be emptied!

Economically, we again have the fact that breastfeeding is free, and also that a breastfed baby is likelier to have fewer illnesses than an artificially-fed baby, so there is less disruption to normal family life and work patterns.

The rest of the family (siblings)

Children in the family benefit by their siblings being breastfed. Physically, if the baby is breastfed, and therefore healthier, then it is less likely to pass on illnesses to other children in the house. Also, a healthy, satisfied baby will leave the parents with more time to devote to other children.

Parents are sometimes worried that older siblings might be jealous of a breastfed baby, but the reality is usually quite different. Especially (though not exclusively) if the older child was breastfed into toddlerhood, he or she is likely to see breastfeeding as a good way for the mother to comfort and care for the sibling, and often suggest it when the baby cries. Seeing siblings being breastfed lays the fundamental understanding of the normal way to care for a baby, as opposed to being indoctrinated by society’s vast array of images of bottlefeeding.

Socially, children who grow up around breastfed siblings may have keenly developed senses of empathy and compassion, as they see the close relationship of the breastfeeding dyad. And these children are also receiving important education about childrearing which will have a profound impact on the choices they make and the sorts of parents or supporters they will become.

The breastfed toddler and pre-school child

All the amazing physical benefits of breastmilk do not, contrary to some information, magically evaporate at the age of 6 or 12 months. Everything that was amazing and good about it for a young baby, is still amazing and good for an older one. Although obviously older children will not be relying on breastmilk for all their nutritional needs, it can still provide a nutritional boost – especially when they are ill or teething and eating less than normal. Many studies show the continued benefits to the immune system of nursing beyond one year[iii]. Nursing beyond babyhood also helps create ideal facial and dental structures, particularly wide upper dental arches which can lead to reduced need for orthodontic treatment, among other benefits.

Arguably the most important aspect of breastfeeding for the toddler is the psychological and emotional support and comfort it offers. For many children and mothers, nursing remains the ‘magic bullet’ that can sooth away tiredness, hurt, emotional upset, and illness. Continued breastfeeding maintains a physical closeness that can help strengthen the emotional bond, and can help mothers to be intuitively responsive to their growing child’s emotional needs. Toddlerhood is such a turbulent time, as children are just beginning to learn about their emotions and how to deal with them, and the security and continuity of a continued breastfeeding relationship can help provide stability and balance. Leaving the timing of weaning up the to child also places trust in him; trust that he knows best what his needs are and how to fill them. Allowing him the power to manage this life-changing time at his own pace can help him build self-esteem, rather than feeling rushed.[iv]

Socially, benefits include the fact that breastfed children may be better at regulating their emotions (as described above), and in any case have a good way to calm down in most situations. These children will also, like those above who are siblings of nurslings, be socially important themselves, as they can have a positive impact on our breastfeeding culture, both as children and as they grow up.

Economically, breastfed toddlers still save their parents money in the form of fewer illnesses and less disruption to family life and work.

Society as a whole

Humans are social animals, meaning we have evolved to live in groups in which we depend upon one another to meet our basic physical and emotional needs. Breastfeeding developed alongside our social evolution, as an integral part of the setup. By helping to ensure the good health of both babies and mothers, breastfeeding helps society – when its members are healthy, a society is stronger. In our society this translates specifically into fewer costs for the healthcare system, and therefore for taxpayers and employers.

Breastfed children may also have stronger, more secure bonds with their mothers, which help establish their behaviour patterns and social skills. Happy, secure children grow up to be happy, secure members of society. They are also more likely to breastfeed their own children, or help support their partners to breastfeed, meaning that future generations reap the rewards.

As mentioned above, the environmental impact of not breastfeeding is huge. If more babies were breastfed, we would hugely reduce pollution and waste. Artificial feeding creates pollution by supporting the industrial dairy industry (livestock is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than are vehicles), requiring vast networks of factory production and long-distance transportation (both heavy consumers of fossil fuel, and polluters of water resources), and in the packaging (mostly plastic, with some metal, all requiring huge amounts of fossil fuel, and nearly all of which will be dumped into landfill to leach into the water supply). Given that breastfeeding is the ultimate in ethically, locally produced food, it seems madness to disregard it in favour of something so unsustainable and out of touch with the needs of both society and the individual. Breastfed children have a head start in understanding where their food comes from and how it is produced.


[i] http://www.brianpalmerdds.com/pdf/section_B.pdf

[ii] http://www.theecologist.org/trial_investigations/268337/breastmilk_vs_formula_food.html

[iii] The Breastfeeding Answer Book, pp 202

[iv] Ibid, pp 203

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