Breastfeeding: The benefits and the challenges

Breastfeeding is the most natural way to feed your baby, providing them with the nutrients and energy they need for healthy growth and development.

Nearly all women are able to breastfeed and provide adequate milk supply for their growing child; so long as they have accurate information and the support of their close friends and family, and care provider.

The World Health Organisation (WHO, 2019) recommends babies are breastfed exclusively for the first six months of their lives. However, the latest results indicate only 15 per cent of babies in Australia are exclusively fed at six months.

Breastfeeding has been proven to reduce child mortality and has health benefits which extend into adulthood. From birth until six months of age breast milk supplies the infant with all necessary energy and nutrients. It contains antibodies which improve and maintain the baby's immune system, protecting against diseases such as diarrhoea, vomiting, middle ear and respiratory infection, asthma, dermatitis and also assisting with a quicker recovery during illnesses. Additionally breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS, childhood obesity and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

For the mother, there are many benefits of breastfeeding including decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease. It assists the woman's body to return to pre-baby state and may help with weight loss. Breastfeeding encourages bonding between mother and baby; it's free and has no negative impact on the environment.

But breastfeeding is not always easy. Many women find it challenging, especially in the first few days where the mother-baby dyad are learning to work together.

The good news is that many problems such as cracked or damaged nipples, engorgement, blocked milk ducts, low or over- supply and mastitis are able to be corrected with the right support.

A lot of difficulties women experience can be attributed to poor position and attachment. If baby doesn't attach well to the breast, it can cause nipple damage as well as poor milk drainage, leading to engorged breasts or low milk supply.

Successful breastfeeding can be planned during the antenatal period and your midwife will be able to discuss any concerns and help you with a birth and feeding plan

The practice of skin to skin is proven to provide immediate benefits to both mother and baby. If left uninterrupted with skin contact a baby will demonstrate reflexes including salivating, rooting, searching and crawling to the breast. These behaviours set up for a successful first breastfeed and transition babies into their new environment. Oxytocin will be released in the mother helping with milk let down and contracting of the uterus. Providing baby and mother are well, it is important skin to skin contact is not interrupted in the first hour of life.

Baby led attachment is the practice of allowing baby to find its way to the breast from the skin to skin position. It means a 'hand off' approach and allowing baby time to familiarise themselves to the mother's breast, it is a calm approach and will take up to 15 minutes before baby is ready to attach to the breast.

Women struggling with breastfeeding may experience feelings of inadequacy, guilt and frustration. It is important to speak to your health care provider. If problems arise, they will refer you to a midwife or lactation consultant to help design the best feeding plan for you and your baby.

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