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Now that you’ve got a few months of pregnancy under your belt, you’ve no doubt heard about at least some of the benefits of breastfeeding. What you may not know is that not breastfeeding could be harmful to you and your baby. “ There are significant risks to mother and child if a woman does not breastfeed,” says Nancy Wight, M.D., a board-certified lactation consultant, neonatologist and director of lactation services at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women in San Diego.
We’re not talking about short-term, relatively minor risks, such as more infant ear infections or having a harder time fitting back into your jeans (though nursing burns 500 extra calories a day, so there is that). We mean major, long-term effects. “Diabetes, obesity, cancer—studies have found increased risk for all these diseases for you and your child if you don’t breastfeed,” adds Wight, a past president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine.
Breastfeeding also lowers your risk for high blood pressure and heart problems. “A study of nearly 140,000 post-menopausal women [published recently in Obstetrics and Gynecology] found that the longer these women breastfed, the lower the prevalence of hypertension, hyperlipidemia [excess fat in the blood] and cardiovascular disease,” Wight explains.
If you think those payoffs are impressive, check out what mother’s milk can do for your baby. For starters—and this is a biggie—you’ll reduce your child’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by about half if you breastfeed. You’ll also reduce his risk of juvenile onset diabetes, leukemia and lymphoma, allergies, obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. If he’s premature, you’ll give him a better shot at good vision—and you may even make him smarter. “Premature babies who are breastfed gain an 8.3-point advantage in IQ over babies who aren’t breastfed,” Wight explains.
And don’t forget the benefits to society—and to the Earth. “Just imagine the reduced burden on our health care system if every woman were to breastfeed,” Wight says. “Breastfeeding is also very green—every dairy cow that is raised, in part to make formula, requires 2.5 acres.” Convinced? Read on for what you can do now to help you overcome obstacles later. Taking even simple steps while you’re pregnant can set the stage for success.
1. Go back to school: Chances are you’ve already signed up for a childbirth education course. But how about a breastfeeding class? “Many moms realize they don’t know how to breastfeed but figure the baby will,” says pediatrician and breastfeeding expert Marianne Neifert, M.D., author of Great Expectations: The Essential Guide to Breastfeeding (2009). “It’s true that nursing is an instinctive act, but it’s not always easy.” Classes not only teach you the basics, such as different ways to hold the baby when nursing—they can also help you avoid common problems, such as sore nipples.
Taking a class before the baby arrives is also important because he isn’t here yet. “Once you’re home with your infant, you’ll be so tired that any downtime you have, you’ll want to spend resting, not reading,” Neifert says.
To find a class, check with your OB or the hospital where you’ll deliver. Also try to find a teacher who has extensive, quality breastfeeding experience—“preferably a board-certified lactation consultant,” Neifert advises. (Check with La Leche League International at llli.org or the International Lactation Consultant Association at ilca.org.) And bring your partner, mom and family members with you—anyone who will be helping with the baby.
2. Get a breast tune-up: If you have any questions about your ability to nurse a baby, get a prenatal breast exam. Your OB may be able to do this; if not, visit a certified lactation consultant. Some conditions such as inverted nipples or previous breast surgeries might affect your ability to nurse successfully. If so, you’ll want to know now, rather than later, so you and your lactation consultant can come up with an action plan.
3. Line up the troops: In case you do have problems—or even questions—figure out who to call before you have the baby. Interview a few lactation consultants to find one you’re comfortable with, make sure your pediatrician wholeheartedly supports breastfeeding, and find an experienced friend or relative (or several!) who can help at a moment’s notice.
4. Be realistic: It’s important to realize that you may have some challenges. That doesn’t mean you can’t breastfeed successfully, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re a failure. “So many women have unrealistic expectations that breastfeeding will automatically be easy,” Wight says. “In reality, it might hurt a bit, and you might have some problems with your milk supply. It takes a while to get things going smoothly, and you have to realize that’s OK.”