Understanding the health benefits and challenges of breastfeeding

In recognition of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, we want to expand breastfeeding education by sharing resources and insights from our medical leadership team around best practices for individuals that choose to breastfeed after giving birth. Continue reading to get answers to the most common breastfeeding questions.

Health benefits of breastfeeding

health benefits of breastfeeding (1)The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding infants for the first six months with continued breastfeeding and introducing appropriate complementary foods for one year or longer. The CDC also affirms that breast milk is the best source of nutrition for most babies—supporting growth and development. Breastfeeding helps boost the immune system of newborns early in life through the passive transmission of antibodies from breast milk to the baby. Studies also suggest a decrease in ear infections and a lower risk for asthma, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes in breastfed newborns versus non-breastfed babies. Another benefit of breastfeeding is bonding, where mom and baby can observe each other's behavior while building trust. Some studies show that bonding through breastfeeding can even improve child neurodevelopment.


LIZ_posts wrapped in blog (9)-1The health benefits of breastfeeding aren't just for the baby; several extend to the parent. According to the American Heart Association, "Research suggests women who breastfeed have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancers. The longer women nurse, whether with one child or over the course of several, the lower their risk." Studies also show that breastfeeding supports a mom's heart health—and lowers their risk of developing diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Breastfeeding also saves money; baby formula can cost a family $1,200 to $1,500 a year on average. It's also more convenient; you can breastfeed anywhere and at any time without having to worry about sterilizing a bottle.

Hospital staff, including nurses, pediatricians, and lactation consultants, are trained to support breastfeeding moms. When a baby is born, it typically takes a couple of days for a mother’s body to produce milk. Frequent feedings help a baby learn how to breastfeed while stimulating a mother’s milk production through hormones (oxytocin and prolactin) produced in the brain. As always, new parents should consult their baby’s pediatrician on whether or not the baby is getting adequate nutrition through breastfeeding.

Challenges of breastfeeding

Breastfeeding may not always be appropriate for all patients. For example, if a mom has a specific medical condition or is on a medication unsafe for breastfeeding then this method of feeding may not be appropriate.

"Breastfeeding can be challenging and very difficult, especially alongside sleeplessness and the stress of caring for a newborn," added Lisa Scarfo, MD, Pediatrician and Medical Director at Mass General Brigham Health Plan . There's a rapid drop in hormones after giving birth that increases the chance of experiencing postpartum blues, even for those not at risk for depression. If there's difficulty with breastfeeding, it can be even more emotionally triggering. Babies can lose up to 10% of their body weight in their first few days of life, and this can cause stress to the parent and caregivers.

Newborns must be regularly seen by their primary care provider during this period. The baby's provider monitors their growth on the infantile growth chart to ensure they gain a certain amount of weight per day. If the baby's birth weight goes below a certain threshold within the first week, there is concern that the baby isn't getting enough calories through breast milk. In that case, a provider might recommend that the baby is supplemented with formula in addition to breast milk for a short time—to ensure the baby doesn't become dehydrated or lose more weight.

Dr. Scarfo added, "As a pediatrician and a mom who breastfed two children, I strongly support breastfeeding. However, I am also acutely aware that it may not be everybody's first choice, and some people have more difficulty than others. For those that decide to choose formula, know that your mental health is most critical to your child's well-being."

As much as Lisa promotes and helps support breastfeeding, she affirmed what's most important is that moms make the right choice for their families and that providers should do everything they can to support those choices. The first few weeks after giving birth can be an emotional rollercoaster; feeding choices for a newborn should not be a source that causes more distress.

How to prepare if you choose to breastfeed

While there are many ways to support breastfeeding postpartum, there are some steps new moms can take before their baby is born. For example, they can set up an appointment with a lactation consultant. This is a great first step to learning more about breastfeeding—while building a relationship with a professional who can provide education and support after a baby is born. New moms can also prepare by getting a breast pump covered under most health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act.

Moms can also find resources on kellymom.com and acog.org, such as:

At Mass General Brigham Health Plan, in addition to lactation consulting, our members have access to:

  • Special care management for babies and expecting moms
  • Childbirth education classes
  • Breastfeeding classes
  • Discounts on childcare and safety products

To learn more, visit our member resources.

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