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Maternal Advantages of Breastfeeding

During exclusive breastfeeding, a woman's menstrual periods are usually suppressed.
Women who breastfeed fully, without supplementing their baby with formula, may go months or a year or more without menstruating. Not only does amenorrhea (lack of periods) provide limited birth control as discussed below, but it conserves iron stores and helps the body replenish the iron lost during fetal development, childbirth, and postpartum bleeding.

The suppression of the menstrual cycle during exclusive breastfeeding also offers a contraceptive effect during the early postpartum period, although this effect declines over time. The Lactational Amenorrhea Method, or LAM, is a postpartum introductory method of contraception that uses three criteria to define the period of lowest pregnancy risk. Studies confirm that breastfeeding provides 98 percent protection against pregnancy, as long as a woman can answer yes to all three of the following questions:

  • Are you less than six months postpartum?
  • Are you breastfeeding exclusively, without the use of formula supplement or solids?
  • Have you been amenorrheic (no periods) since delivery?
Alternate methods of birth control should be used if a woman's periods have returned, if routine supplements have been introduced, or if a breastfeeding woman is more than six months postpartum. Alternate methods of birth control also should be used if a breastfeeding woman is unwilling to accept even a remote risk of pregnancy.

Breastfeeding is highly cost effective.
That's not to say you won't spend any money by breastfeeding, but you'll spend a lot less than the cost of formula. Feeding a baby is an expensive proposition; ready-to-feed formula costs more than three dollars a day. It takes only a fraction of that to feed a nursing mother the additional five hundred calories required daily to produce sufficient milk. However, I believe most sources that promote the advantages of breastfeeding err on the side of overstating how inexpensive it is. When the anticipated cost savings of breastfeeding are overemphasized, many parents, expecting to breastfeed for free, may be reluctant to spend any additional money to assure their success.

Despite the anticipated cost savings of breastfeeding, I strongly encourage expectant parents to budget some funds to help them achieve their breastfeeding goals. It is unrealistic to assume that you will have no expenses associated with breastfeeding. The fact is that feeding a baby costs money, and you might as well spend your dollars providing the very best nutrition. Some women may want to purchase nursing clothing or a sling that allows them to breastfeed discreetly in public. Others may need to rent an electric breast pump to maintain lactation while they are employed outside the home. Still others may encounter breastfeeding difficulties re-quiring professional consultation or the purchase of breastfeeding aids. By budgeting for the likelihood of such expenses, parents will be better prepared to spend a little extra, should the need arise.

By giving breastfeeding a try, you keep your options open.
You can always stop nursing and switch to bottle-feeding later if you prefer. If you begin bottle-feeding, however, you might wonder whether you would have enjoyed the chance to breastfeed. Whenever a woman has any ambivalence about how to feed her baby, I urge her to at least begin breastfeeding. Why close the door too soon on something you might really enjoy if you would just give it a try? Besides, there are only a couple of times in a woman's life when she can nurse a baby, but anyone can feed a bottle anytime.

Breastfeeding is far more than a method of infant feeding.
Breastfeeding is a style of mothering and nurturing, as much as the act of nourishing your infant at your breast. Nursing serves not only as the source of life-sustaining food, but also as a way to provide warmth, succor, and the consolation of a mother's touch. Whether the newborn cries out for food or human contact, once suckled at the breast, his every need is met. Whether the fretful toddler searches for the nipple to return to sleep, calm a fear, or soothe an ache, she finds peace nestling at the breast. "Token," or occasional breastfeeding cannot be equated with "unrestricted" breastfeeding where a baby nurses at will. The mothering and nurturing aspects of breastfeeding prompt some adoptive mothers and others who may not produce a full milk supply to endeavor to nurse their babies even partially in order to experience the interactions unique to breastfeeding. While nutritional superiority and immune benefits can be quantitated and appreciated by virtually anyone, the nurturing and interactive aspects of breastfeeding may be hugely undervalued unless one has experienced firsthand what it means to view breastfeeding as a form of mothering. Employed women and other mothers who must be separated from their babies, can attest that feeding expressed breast milk by bottle is not the same as breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding requires a mother to regularly stop what she is doing, get off her feet, sit down, and relax.
The hormones prolactin and oxytocin, which are released during breastfeeding, have been called "mothering" hormones because they produce a peaceful, nurturing sensation. Having to take a break and nurse your baby actually has a calming effect on a busy mother. Breastfeeding breaks can pull a hectic mother away from the distractions of her other duties to force her full attention on her infant, thereby renewing her perspective. The whole time I was raising five infants, I maintained a near-frenetic pace as a medical student, intern, resident, and junior faculty member. "Needing" to nurse my baby was a breath of fresh air, forcing me to sit down, become fully engaged with my infant, and refocus my energies. I would have considered it a great loss had I not experienced the intimate giving and receiving that characterized my own personal breastfeeding relationships.

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From Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding by Marianne R. Neifert. Copyright © 1998 by Marianne R. Neifert. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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