How Important Is It, Really, to Nurse?

breastfeeding

This is a guest post by Dr. Laura Nathanson, author of The Portable Pediatrician.

Most of the parents I see know full well that breast milk is optimal for babies.

But does that really outweigh other factors? What if the mother is returning to work at four, eight, twelve weeks? What if she has inverted nipples or has had breast surgery, and suspects or has been told nursing will be difficult? What if she doesn’t, um, have “that kind” of relationship with her breasts? What if the baby’s father isn’t very enthusiastic? What if the mother wants to be sure the father will bond early, and strongly, with the baby, and thinks nursing will get in the way? What if the baby is born prematurely, and you’re faced with pumping for weeks until he or she is big enough to nurse? What if the baby is adopted, or is spending her fetal life in the womb of a surrogate, and you know that it is possible to nurse without having been pregnant, but that it takes a great deal of effort and commitment?

Parents need to know the trade-off: is it worth a small, or a large, struggle tonurse? There are two aspects to consider.

  • Medical problems. Will nursing prevent allergies, ear infections, diarrhea, obesity? Is there a particular reason that your particular baby would benefit from nursing more than the average baby?
  • Bonding. If a mother doesn’t nurse, can she and the baby bond well? If she does nurse, will the baby bond well with the father, even though the feeding is such a strong part of nurturing?

When I guide individual parents, here are the points I stress:

  • If your baby is premature, breastfeeding is worth almost any sacrifice. Not only is Cherub’s immune system immature, but so are the lungs, intestines, brain, and general strength. An illness that could be minor in a full term baby can be catastrophic in a Premie. Breast milk is a powerful infection fighter, and assists brain development.
  • Nursing helps to protect babies from crib death, or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Nursing for the first four months, avoiding formula and foods, helps to protect a baby from middle ear infections for the whole first year of life.
  • If you are going to be visiting or living where hygiene is poor or highly unreliable, nursing is a powerful, unique protection against infant diarrhea.
  • Nursing for even three weeks or so is worthwhile.
  • While nursing is a remarkable gift to Cherub, there’s a limit on what it can do. In particular, many people wonder whether nursing can prevent gluten intolerance (also called celiac disease.) It can’t, according to careful studies by the National Institutes of Health. But I hope that isn’t your only reason for deciding whether to nurse. There are so many other excellent ones.

About Bonding:

Babies bond in a multitude of ways, mostly touch and smell. Both parents can bond, no matter what the feeding method. Besides, by two weeks of age, a full-term thriving nursing baby usually can start having an occasional (up to once a day) bottle containing, ideally, expressed breast milk.

The most important factor in bonding between father and baby is that no one act as “gatekeeper,” discouraging the father in subtle ways. Gatekeepers are people who allow or forbid access to the baby and who monitor how others handle the newborn. Leaving the father and the baby alone, in a spirit of tranquility and confidence, is usually all it takes to forge a strong father-baby bond.

Whichever mode of feeding you decide upon, the main points are to enjoy the baby and to keep her well-nourished. Babies grow and change so rapidly. If you cling to strong feelings, of guilt, or even of vanity, about the method of feeding, you won’t be prepared when feeding becomes routine, taken for granted, and the baby’s playing a whole new game. Whether you nurse or bottle-feed is not going to determine your style of parenting, the joyfulness of your relationship, the character traits of your child, or your methods of discipline.

Excerpted from The Portable Pediatrician by Dr. Laura Nathanson.

Dr. Laura Nathanson is the author of The Portable Pediatrician, as well as several other books. She has practiced pediatrics for more than thirty years, is board certified in pediatrics and peri-neonatology, and has been consistently listed in The Best Doctors in America. For more information please visit http://www.theportablepediatrician.com, and follow the author on Facebook

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