The importance of breastfeeding
Can you remember when you first learned to dance, ride a bike, use a computer or put on make-up? You probably started out not really knowing what you were doing and making a few mistakes, but with time and practice you eventually got it right.
Like learning any new skill, breastfeeding can take patience and perseverance to get right. Producing breastmilk may be a natural process, but the art of actually breastfeeding needs to be learned.
We used to learn this skill from the older women in our community; our mothers, aunties and grandmothers who had breastfed before us, but this is often not possible in the 21st century.
Breastfeeding can be challenging in the early days for many mothers. How do you hold your baby and make sure they attach correctly? Is it supposed to hurt? How often should your baby be feeding? How do you know if your baby is getting enough milk?
The first weeks
It is normal to have ups and downs in the first weeks. Some mothers will have more downs than ups and need lots of extra assistance. However, with the right support and information, most mothers can breastfeed successfully.
If breastfeeding is not going well, there are many sources of help and it is OK to ask for help and support. And to keep asking if you still don't feel things are working! The majority of difficulties are temporary, but can feel insurmountable if the right help isn't available.
Research all over the world shows breastfeeding is very important for babies and mothers. It really makes a difference if babies are breastfed,even for some of the time.
Breastfeeding shouldn't be like being on a diet where if you 'fall off the wagon' by sneaking a few chocolate biscuits you feel you are a failure and have to give up your diet forever. It's OK if your baby is not fully breastfed for a while because of temporary problems. Any breastmilk is better than none at all and further down the track you may be able to fully breastfeed again.
The benefits of breastfeeding
Breastmilk is human milk. It is the perfect food for human babies as it provides everything a little human needs to grow and develop to their full potential - physically, mentally and emotionally.
In developing nations, breastfeeding can be the difference between life and death for a new baby as they have an 8 times lower chance of dying than formula-fed babies.
In Australia, we have an advanced health care system so the effect of not breastfeeding may be less dramatic in the short term. However, even in industrialised countries like ours a baby is 6 times less likely to be hospitalised if they are breastfed than if they are formula-fed.
This is because breastmilk contains anti-bodies and proteins that protect babies from illness and disease. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of:
- childhood cancers such as lymphoma
Breastmilk contains all the nutrients a baby needs for at least the first 6 months of their life and continues to be the most important part of their diet throughout the first year. It is a living fluid, constantly changing to meet the needs of a growing baby.
The unique combination of fatty acids and other components in breastmilk contribute to optimal brain development. And yes, breastmilk contains all the things you see advertised on TV like Omega 3! All in perfect quantities for your individual baby.
Breastfeeding and you
Breastfeeding is good for mothers too! Breastfeeding helps mothers' bodies return to their pre-pregnant state more quickly and many women also find they lose excess weight while breastfeeding. Breastfeeding also reduces a woman's risk of cancer of the breast and ovaries, heart disease and osteoporosis.
It is also very convenient, cheap and portable and can be the perfect way to soothe a grumpy baby! It is very reassuring for mothers to be breastfeeding when they have to deal with natural disasters like storms, blackouts, bushfires, floods or even being delayed for hours by a traffic accident. Breastfeeding is also not just about nutrition, but about bonding and spending time with your baby.
Breastfeeding can be a simple way mothers can contribute to a better world. The production and feeding of breastmilk has a far lower impact on our environment and world resources than any alternative feeding method. Breastfeeding saves food resources, fuel and energy. No packaging is required and no chemicals are needed.
But most of all, many many mothers find breastfeeding an enjoyable, positive and uplifting experience.
Help with breastfeeding
There are many places you can go to for help if you have questions about or difficulties with breastfeeding.
Hospital - If you have recently given birth, you may be eligible for ongoing help from your hospital. Some hospitals have a lactation consultant you can visit or who may visit you. Others have an infant feeding clinic where you can stay for a few hours or a day to get assistance. In private hospitals, there may be an extra charge for this, or you may be covered free for a certain period of time after giving birth.
The Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) is a large, non-profit organisation that educates and supports mothers who want to breastfeed their babies.
The ABA offers a free 7-day telephone helpline nationwide, as well as email counselling, information and a forum on their website. You can find out the 7-day helpline number for your state by visiting the website or phoning the ABA Head Office on 03 9885 0855.
All the ABA's breastfeeding counsellors are volunteers and are mothers who have breastfed their own baby or babies. They undergo a comprehensive 12-month training course so they can help and support other mothers. They are great to talk to because they've 'been there too' and can empathise with the difficulties of other mothers as well as providing helpful suggestions on how to get things sorted.
The ABA also has mother support groups in most local areas that meet once or twice a month and a bi-monthly magazine with articles on breastfeeding and early parenting.
A private lactation consultant is a health professional such as a nurse or midwife who has had extra specific training in breastfeeding (lactation). Some lactation consultants operate through hospitals and child health services, while others are in private practice.
A lactation consultant in private practice will generally visit you at home for an hour at least and the consultation may also include follow up visits or telephone assistance. There is usually a fee, anything from about $50 per hour upwards.
A qualified lactation consultant is called an IBCLC or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. It is worth finding out if the lactation consultant you will see is an IBCLC. Many lactation consultants are also members of the Australian Lactation Consultants Association or one of the state colleges of lactation consultants.
To find a private lactation consultant in your local area, consult our directory.
Day Stay Clinic - Some hospitals and other organisations offer a breastfeeding or mother and baby clinic where you can visit for a day or sometimes longer and receive assistance from trained staff. You often don't need to be an ex-patient of the hospital. You usually need to book in advance and there may be a waiting list.
You and your baby go to the clinic and several feeds are observed and staff will offer advice and suggestions on your problems. There is usually a fee, but you may be able to claim some back from Medicare or your private health insurance (check with the clinic).
Your child health nurse may be able to assist with breastfeeding problems (some are even qualified lactation consultants). Different parts of Australia have different child health services but generally you will have access to home visits from a child health nurse or visit them at their clinic regularly. Some have open sessions where you can visit without an appointment. Some local authorities also have a visiting lactation consultant service or a day stay clinic that your child health nurse can refer you to.