Breastfeeding has leapt into the lime light lately, along with a big dose of controversy, thanks to a recent U.S. government campaign that treated the issue as a major public-health concern. "You wouldn't take risks before your baby's born. Why start after?" read advertisements put out by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
While the government's campaign may not have been popular with everybody, one point remains undebatable: "Research shows over and over that breastfeeding provides health benefits to babies and their mothers that formula-feeding does not," says Lori Feldman-Winter, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Children's Regional Hospital at Cooper in Camden, N.J., and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Executive Committee on Breastfeeding.
Indeed, hundreds of studies have proved the short- and long-term benefits of nursing: It decreases the incidence not only of diarrhea and ear infections, but also of diabetes, obesity, asthma, leukemia, bacterial meningitis, some forms of lymphoma and even sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). What's more, research has shown that premature babies who are fed breast milk do better on tests of mental development later in childhood than those given formula. These benefits likely apply to full-term babies as well.
There are benefits for mothers, too: Breastfeeding reduces a woman's lifelong risk of developing ovarian and breast cancers, as well as osteoporosis.
3 Keys to Success
To help you get off to a good start with breastfeeding, lactation consultants recommend following a few vital steps:
1. Plan ahead. "You need to prepare," says Mary Lofton, a spokeswoman for La Leche League International. "You wouldn't throw a dinner party without planning the menu, shopping and even preparing dishes ahead of time—think of those first few breastfeeding sessions as the most important dinner party of your and your baby's life." The best way to prepare for this party is by taking a breastfeeding class, either through La Leche League (llli.org) or at a birthing center or hospital.
2. Choose the right hospital. If there's a designated "baby friendly" hospital or birthing center in your area, consider having your baby there. These facilities are certified by the World Health Organization and UNICEF as offering optimal lactation services, with specially trained staff and policies to help ensure breastfeeding success. (For a list of certified facilities and more information, visit babyfriendlyusa.org.) If you don't have a baby-friendly site near you, choose a hospital that has certified lactation consultants on staff.
3. Breastfeed ASAP. Most babies are alert and ready to nurse right after birth but fall into a sleepy period for the next 24 hours or so, which can make it more difficult for them to feed. So let your baby nurse within 30 to 60 minutes of delivery—and be sure to inform the nurses of your intentions before the baby's born. In most hospitals, the medical staff does routine tests and exams, such as measuring the baby's weight and height and administering eye drops, after she's born. "But sometimes they will delay these procedures until after you breastfeed," says Katy Lebbing, a certified lactation consultant in Schaumburg, Ill., and a La Leche League spokeswoman.
If you have a Cesarean section, ask the nurses to bring your baby to you as soon as possible after delivery. They or your partner may need to help you hold the baby due to the effects of your anesthesia, but there is no reason you can't nurse. Also request that your baby be allowed to "room in" with you throughout your hospital stay so you are able to nurse as often as she wants. (This also applies if you had a vaginal delivery.)