With the ongoing World Breastfeeding Week, the focus is once again on how mother’s milk is the ultimate source of nutrition for newborn babies. The theme of the campaign this year is ‘Protect Breastfeeding: A Shared Responsibility,’ and one of the objectives is to inform people about the importance of protecting breastfeeding.
With that aim in mind, we talked to doctors about the benefits of breastfeeding and concerns around it amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Ashwini Bhalerao Gandhi, consultant gynecologist at PD Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai, says: “Breast milk is the ideal nutrition a baby needs for its growth and vitality. It contains abundant and easily absorbed nutritional components, antioxidants, enzymes, immune properties and live antibodies.”
Listing out the various favourable effects that breastfeeding can have on both mother and child, Dr Bhavini Shah Balakrishnan, consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician at Masina Hospital in Mumbai, says: “Breast milk provides all the energy and nutrients that an infant needs for the first few months of life. That is why, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding as the sole source of nutrition for the baby for about six months and can be continued as long as both mother and baby desire.”
Benefits for infants
Breast milk, particularly colostrum, is high in nutrition. After giving birth, a woman produces colostrum, which is bright yellow, and has a sticky and dense consistency. It is extremely necessary for your baby’s health because it is a rich source of immunoglobulins and vitamins A, D, E, and K. The milk produced later (known as transition milk and mature milk) is vital for the baby because they are rich in fats, proteins, minerals, sugar and water.
Infants who are breastfed have reduced risks of:
• Type 1 diabetes
• Severe lower respiratory disease
• Acute otitis media (ear infections)
• Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
• Gastrointestinal infections (diarrhea/vomiting)
• Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) for preterm infants
Benefits for mothers
• Breastfeeding burns 500-600 calories per day, thereby facilitating weight loss.
• Brain releases hormones oxytocin and prolactin during breast feeding which helps in bonding with the baby and easing anxiety and stress.
• Women who breastfeed seem less likely to develop postpartum depression.
• Continued breastfeeding also pauses ovulation and provides additional contraception.
• Breastfeeding saves the mother a lot of extra effort, time and money. It is an easy way of quenching the baby’s hunger and thirst.
Women who breastfeed have a lower risk of:
• High blood pressure
• High blood fats
• Heart disease
• Type 2 diabetes
When to initiate and how frequently to breastfeed your baby?
Now that you know the benefits of breast milk, how often should you feed your baby? Dr C. Jayasree Reddy, senior consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Ankura Hospital for Women and Children in Hyderabad, clarifies:
“You should initiate breastfeeding as soon as possible after delivery, usually within an hour. Babies are biologically ready for breastfeeding soon after birth. You should breastfeed your baby for at least 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours or when the baby demands. Cooing, restlessness, sighing noises, rapid eye movement, sucking sounds, lip smacking, or hand to mouth movements are a few feeding signals that you ought to be aware of. Since crying is a late cue, do not wait for your baby to cry before starting breastfeeding.”
Is it safe for a Covid-19 positive mother to breastfeed her child?
With many mothers testing Covid-19 positive after giving birth in the past one year, they have been anxious to know if they can pass on the virus to their babies through breast milk. Explaining that there is nothing to fear, Dr Ashwini said: “So far, the virus has not been found in breast milk. All mothers have been advised to continue breastfeeding while practicing three W s – wearing a mask while feeding, washing hands with soap before and after touching the baby, and wiping and disinfecting surfaces regularly. If a mother has contracted coronavirus, she may wish to express her breast milk and feed the baby using a clean cup and spoon. Infected mothers produce immune antibodies in their milk which protect their babies. These mothers should seek medical care early and follow instructions from a healthcare provider. Only in cases where the mother is severely ill, outside milk may be given to the baby.”
What diet should a lactating mother follow?
A lactating mother’s nutrient intake should increase to suit the child’s requirements. Dr Meghana Nyapathi, fertility specialist at Oasis Fertility Clinic in Bengaluru, gives new mothers the following food tips:
• Add a lot of colours to your plate by consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables.
• Take foods rich in protein such as eggs, cheese and fish.
• Almonds, pistachios, figs and flaxseeds should become part of your daily diet.
• Add dark green leafy vegetables and salad to your menu.
Foods to avoid:
• Foods containing too much salt like pickles and chips.
• Soft drinks and high-sugar food items.
How do breast milk banks help?
Breast milk is vital for a baby, but there are instances where a mother might be unable to produce milk or may be away from the baby. In these cases, breast milk banks can help infants not miss out on early life nutrition. Explaining how these banks can help, Dr Ashwini said: “Breast milk banks store pasteurized stored human milk. In India, wet nursing had been in practice since the mythological ages. Dr. Almeida Fernandes founded the first milk bank in Asia under the name Sneha in Mumbai. There are nearly 14 such banks all over India, but this number is not enough. Considering the complications associated with formula feeding due to the mother’s inability to breastfeed the baby, many such units and banks are needed. Breast milk stored in such banks can be prescribed for preterm babies, sick babies, mothers with postpartum illness, and babies whose mothers have lactation failures.”
Hacks for working mothers
Juggling work and breastfeeding can become a tough task for new moms. A mother who has to join office after giving birth can take the help of a caregiver to ensure that her baby receives the best nutrition. Dr Meghana says: “Mother’s milk is a must for the kid for at least six months. If you have support from family or a caregiver, you can express breast milk using your hand or a pump that can be stored in sterilised bottles for up to 48 hours in a refrigerator. A caregiver can thaw the milk and give it to the child. Leaking might be a major problem for some women in case of which absorbent padding can be used. It is important to have support from your employer that will help in tackling post-delivery issues.”
Need to develop safe spaces
Though the advantages of mother’s milk have been stressed time and again, breastfeeding in public have often invited unnecessary flak from onlookers, making it difficult for women to be in charge of her baby’s needs. Stating that we need to develop more breastfeeding-friendly places in the community, Dr Rucha Kaushik, consultant breast cancer surgeon at PD Hinduja Hospital, said:
“Easy access to safe, comfortable and dedicated breastfeeding places across the country will help all nursing mothers to avoid anxieties related with feeding in public and can help to maintain the right intervals between the feeds. Due to increase in awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding, all government offices and a few private companies have developed better and dedicated facilities for nursing mothers. However, we need more of them at workplaces, parks and shopping malls. In rural India, breastfeeding in public places is acceptable, but in urban areas, we are still not completely comfortable with that because of privacy and hygiene issues.”