Midwife & Breastfeeding Consultant

Celebrating Breastfeeding

Posted on January 18, 2013

National Breastfeeding Week 2012  was from October 1st through 7th and the purpose of the week was to highlight the importance and value of breastfeeding to the health of mum and baby.  I like to think of National Breastfeeding Week as an opportunity for us to celebrate all the wonderful benefits that breastfeeding has to offer.  I marked National Breastfeeding Week by hosting a “Celebrating Breastfeeding Party” in the Trident Hotel, Kinsale on 4th October – there was a great turn out and prizes, cake and lots chat and laughter!   Coffee mornings were hosted around the country by breastfeeding support groups and there was also the superb breastfeeding challenge organised by Friends of breastfeeding.

So what is all the fuss about and what is so wonderful about breastfeeding that it warrants its own special week?  We all know the saying “Breast is Best” but often most people don’t actually know why it is best.  There has been lots of excellent research done all over the world on many different aspects of breastfeeding.  This research has demonstrated that when a baby is not breastfed for the first three months of life they are five times more likely to be admitted to hospital with diarrhoea, two times more likely to be admitted to hospital for breathing problems and or ear infections.  The baby who does not receive breast milk for the first three months of life is also twice as likely to develop eczema and five times more likely to develop a urinary tract infection. 

While this research is all great news and reason enough to celebrate breastfeeding these are well established facts about the health risks of not breastfeeding.   I thought it would be interesting to have a fresh look at some of the more recent research and some of the lesser known benefits of breastfeeding – just to get a complete picture of how important breastfeeding is to mother and infant health.   I believe that by looking at the research we can better understand why the scientists, health professional and public health policy makers want more women to breastfeed . 

Breastfeeding decreases the risk of childhood obesity. At this year’s Association of Lactation Consultants conference Dr Richard Layte, research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland (ERSI) and Trinity College Dublin reported on the patterns of breastfeeding in Ireland with information collected from the Growing Up In Ireland Cohort Study.   The research in this study is based on information from interviews of parents of 11,000 children born between 2007 and 2008 and what makes this research so interesting is that it is highly relevant - it is about present day Irish children.  Dr Layte said that the research showed that children who were breastfed for 3 to 6 months have a 38% less risk of obesity at age 9 and children who were breastfed for six or more months are 51% less likely to be obese.  At present in Ireland, there is a childhood obesity epidemic, our childhood obesity rates are on a par with the US with 19% of all three year olds suffering from obesity.  Simply put, the more babies who are breastfed the lower the childhood obesity rates will be.   This Irish research is consistent with other international research on obesity and breastfeeding and childhood obesity can result in other health problems in later life, specifically heart disease and diabetes.  

Breastfeeding protects the baby from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes in later life.  In 2007 the World Health Organisation conducted a review of forty years of different research studies that examined the effects of breastfeeding on blood pressure, obesity, cholesterol, diabetes and intellectual performance.  In this type of review of the research, called a meta analysis, the researchers rigorously scrutinised over 150 different pieces of research specifically to ascertain if there was a link between breastfeeding and long term health benefits.  The researchers concluded that breastfed subjects had a lower cholesterol, were less likely to be obese and less likely to have type 2 diabetes.   Performance in intelligence tests was higher in subjects who had been breastfed.   This is a really important piece of research because it is based on a large number of research papers; it is thorough in its methodology and clearly demonstrates that there are multiple long term health benefits to breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding protects mum from, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes in later life.  In 2009 researchers assessed the health records of 138,681 post menopausal women and found that with more than 12 months cumulative breastfeeding episodes (eg: breastfeeding three babies for seven months each) would provide the mother with protection from high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.  Another study done over a 20 year period and completed in 2008 showed that women who had breastfed for at least one month were protected from heart disease.  And yet another study of 2,516 midlife women showed that the longer a women breastfeeds for the more profound the protection from heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes , breastfeeding works in a dose-response way to protect the mother.

Breastfeeding protects the baby from childhood leukaemia. Researchers in 2004 used a meta-analysis method (reviewing the outcome of many other studies)to  measure if there was a link between duration of breastfeeding and the risk of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) and the risk of acute megaloblastic leukaemia (AML).  The results of this research showed that both short-term and long-term breastfeeding reduced the risk of ALL and AML.

Breastfeeding saves money (lots of it!!).  On October 18th 2012 UNICEF issued a report Preventing Disease and Saving Resources to look at how raising breastfeeding rates could save money through improving health outcomes in the UK.  The researchers evaluated 25 different studies on the health benefits associated with breastfeeding and then used quantitative analysis to measure the cost implications of low breastfeeding rates.  The results of this research showed that if 45% of women exclusively breastfed for four months and 75% of babies in neonatal units were still being breastfed at discharge from hospital over £17 million could be saved annually.  Also if half of the mothers who currently do not breastfeed were to breastfeed up to 18 months in their life time (eg: breastfeeding 3 children for 6 months each) this would save more that £31million and would also result in 865 few breast cancer cases a year.

What this means is that breastfed babies are measurably healthier and go to the doctor less.  Research done in Scotland in 2004 reviewed 13 GP’s practices and 935 babies and showed that breastfed babies had 15% fewer GP visits than formula fed babies.  This not only is better for the baby but also saves the parents money.

Add to this the fact that by breastfeeding a family is not spending money on bottles, sterilisers and formula. The average cost of formula feeding can range from €600 to €800 a year depending on the price of the equipment and formula brand.  Adding  this cost to the possible increased medical costs it makes good financial sense to  breastfeed.

Let’s celebrate breastfeeding!!  This is only a small sample of some of the recent research that has been done on breastfeeding.  What all this information shows is that human babies are meant to receive human milk for at least the first 6 to 12 months of life.  A baby’s intestinal system is designed to receive and digest its own mothers’ milk and if this doesn’t happen then the baby’s body will struggle to develop and maintain a fully functioning immune system.  Equally, breastfeeding is a part of a woman’s normal health life cycle and it facilitates  her body reach its full health potential.   Add to this that the experience of breastfeeding for most mothers and babies is a wonderful and joyful experience it is easy to see why there is so much to celebrate!