The Challenges and Benefits of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is natural, health promoting, beautiful and nurturing. Nursing provides more than just basic sustenance. It is an act of bonding that provides life-long benefits for both the mother and the baby. Growing awareness of the fact that “breast is best” has led to an increase in breastfeeding rates, but there remain surprising gaps in the support system available to nursing mothers. 

It is a bit surprising that research into the act of breastfeeding is not a priority. It is a basic and essential human activity and The Washington Post recently examined how the medical establishment has failed nursing mothers. Studies have shown that 60 percent of mothers do not meet their personal breastfeeding goals and 80 percent of parents think that nursing difficulties contribute to post-partum depression. 

As the benefits of breastfeeding are beginning to be more widely recognized, at least in the U.S., there has been a growing stigma against moms who formula-feed their babies. If you’re a formula-feeding mom, please don’t feel attacked or judged. 

There are certain medical conditions that can prevent a woman from breastfeeding; however, in the vast majority of circumstances, all women have enough milk to breastfeed. The beginning days are critical in the process. The more a baby nurses, the more effectively they will latch and the more milk will be produced. I always recommend optimizing your diet and staying hydrated, and this is especially the case when nursing or pregnant. 

One of the issues confronting mothers is that the physical act of nursing often receives less attention than the nutritional benefits of breast milk. Even the commonly used terminology is flawed. A nursing baby is said to “suck” or “suckle” but the actual mechanics are surprisingly complex. Coordinated muscle movement and shaping of the mouth to form a vacuum is necessary for a baby to extract breast milk. It may be instinctual and grow more efficient with repetition, but keep in mind that breastfeeding requires an infant to chew, breathe, swallow, compress the breast and form a vacuum with their mouth.

Breastfeeding is often portrayed as entirely instinctive but the internet is filled with forums of mothers despairing over their inability to nurse. The disconnect between an idealized vision of simple and serene nursing and the reality that for some mothers breastfeeding can be difficult and draining is verified by hard numbers. A study conducted by UC Davis found that 92 percent of mothers encountered at least one breastfeeding problem three days after delivery and half of mothers found their newborn did not nurse well. 

The emotional and physical challenges of nursing explain why only 13 percent of mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Lactation consultants can be an invaluable asset to nursing mothers but not every hospital is baby friendly. Even those that are may have an overworked and undertrained staff that are unable to dedicate the time necessary to foster effective nursing. There are other resources available. Le Leche League is a terrific resource to contact for help and many hospitals offer breastfeeding classes.

Despite the emphasis placed on the benefits breast milk rather than the mechanics of breastfeeding, there is currently no formula available that is even roughly equivalent to breastmilk. As pointed out in The Washington Post opinion piece, scientists know more about garden vegetables than they do about the composition of breast milk. Even if the ingredients were indexed effectively, the biological interactions between the breast milk and the baby’s immune system remain too complex and individualized to duplicate in a mass-produced and ultra-processed product. 

If you are a woman who is unable to breastfeed, or you have adopted your newborn, you may want to consider using donated breast milk. Unfortunately, there is a major downside to using breast milk from human milk banks that are now available in the U.S. The milk has been pasteurized, which means many of the essential immune-building elements will be decimated in the pasteurization process and your infant will fail to receive this crucial support when they need it the most.

If you're unable to find a safe source of breast milk, please steer clear of commercial infant formulas as much as possible and definitely avoid all soy infant formula, as it is loaded with toxic elements like high doses of manganese and aluminum. For two homemade baby formula recipes and additional information on the dangers of soy formula make sure you check out my feature article “Infant Soy Formula — A Risky Public Experiment.”
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