Jul 30, 2014

The Benefits of Breastfeeding

Karen Flynn is the WIC Program Administrator in the Maternal and Child Health Division of the Vermont Department of Health. Since her involvement with the work of the Legislative Study Committee on Breastfeeding in 2000, she has advocated successfully for inclusion of breastfeeding policy in strategic plans for maternal and child health programs, obesity prevention and worksite wellness. She was instrumental in establishing a breastfeeding peer counseling program to provide mother-to-mother support for Vermont WIC families, developing the Department of Health Breastfeeding Friendly Employer recognition program, and ensuring that hospital maternity unit staff, pediatric and family practice staff, home visitors and others working with mothers and infants have training in the latest evidence-based methods to support breastfeeding success.

Breastfeeding: Ancient Practice, Modern Benefits

Breastfeeding is one of the most important gifts a mother can give to--and a father/partner can support for--their child. “Babies are born to breastfeed, and during the first days, weeks and months of a child’s life, breastfeeding promotes optimal brain development and function,” says Dr. Breena Holmes, the Director of Maternal and Child Health at the Vermont Department of Health.

Exclusive breastfeeding during the first 6 months of life and continued breast­feeding thereafter (along with adequate complementary feeding) supports the best cognitive and social-emotional development.

Key Health Benefits

The first years of a child's life are the most critical for brain development. The infant brain forms one million new connections every second, and research shows that the fatty acids DHA and ARA in human milk play a key role in the structure and function of brain tissue. Breast milk is a unique nutritional source that provides optimal infant nutrition and contains a complex and ever-changing variety of essential nutrients. Studies have shown that:

  • Breast-fed children are more resistant to disease and infection early in life than formula-fed children.
  • Breast milk is easier for babies to digest and is fully digested for maximum nutritional benefit.
  • Breast milk is always changing to meet a growing baby’s needs.
  • Breast-fed children are less likely to contract diseases such as juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and cancer later in life.
  • Feeding at the breast helps shape a baby’s jaw so teeth grow in straighter.

Social-Emotional & Cognitive Benefits

While the health advantages of breastfeeding are indisputable, many parents cite the influence of the psychological benefits, including bonding, as the major reason for choosing to breastfeed. Breastfeeding provides a strong foundation for the mother/baby relationship, promoting and enhancing the interaction between them. The skin-to-skin contact, warmth and closeness infants experience while feeding nurtures the bond between mother and baby that will ultimately shape the baby’s brain connections, benefiting their social, emotional and cognitive intelligence.

Furthermore, a strong, nurturing relationship with a trusted adult offers a baby an essential buffer against stress. There are psychological benefits for the mother, too: hormones released during breastfeeding have been shown to reduce stress and depression and improve mother/baby communication.  

Challenges Facing Moms

As the key to good health of mothers and babies, breastfeeding also significantly benefits families, employers, and society. For these reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends feeding only breast milk until age 6 months, and breast milk plus solid food from 6 - 12 months and beyond.

But most moms start out breastfeeding only to bump up against some common barriers, such as physical challenges, lack of knowledge about breastfeeding or reading the baby’s cues, lifestyle barriers, and having to return to work. To achieve the long term benefits, mothers often need a boost in confidence, support, and encouragement—in the early days, when they’re worried about milk supply and getting enough sleep, when they return to work, while they’re working, and when they’re ready to wean.

Breastfeeding requires commitment and persistence, and active support from family and friends, community organizations, employers, health care systems and government entities can make all the difference. Our collective role can help keep mothers and babies strong—and benefit the health of the community as a whole.

How Employers Can Help

Many opportunities exist to protect, promote and support breastfeeding. These days, with 72% of Vermont parents of young children in the workforce, employers can play a lead role in supporting breastfeeding. And there are tangible benefits for employers who do, such as:

  • Increased loyalty of existing employees
  • Healthier mothers and children use fewer sick days
  • Decreased employee turnover
  • A more attractive workplace to prospective employees

In May 2008, Vermont’s labor law was amended to require employers of nursing mothers to provide reasonable time throughout the day for the employee to express breast milk for her nursing child and to make a reasonable accommodation to provide appropriate private space that is not a bathroom stall.

Breastfeeding-Friendly Business Stars

There are businesses in Vermont who have gone above and beyond in making their workplaces breastfeeding friendly. One example is Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex. Co-owners Randy George and Liza Cain provide a private space and flexible alternating schedules so nursing mothers can express milk at work when they need to. Watch this video to hear the full story about how they make it work and why they’re building a culture that supports working families:

JDK Design in Burlington also took the lead in creating the The Mamava Lactation Station—a free-standing pod that offers nursing mothers a safe, clean, functional, and beautifully designed space to pump/nurse when they are away from home or at work. Zutano (in Cabot) was the first sponsor of the pod. These days you'll find it at the Burlington International Airport.

The Vermont Department of Health website has more information about breastfeeding and worksite wellness and includes a list of breastfeeding-friendly employers in Vermont.

Breastfeeding is a natural way to help babies achieve optimal physical, social, emotional and cognitive development during the critical early years. Supporting families everywhere to help them stick with breastfeeding—including those mothers who return to the workforce—gives children the best opportunity to succeed.

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