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Lets start at the beginning…

Of course much nutritional damage begins generations before we are born, but we will leave that for another post.  As a practical starting point, what and how we feed our babies is crucially important to their future health.  In a recent analysis1, Bartick and Reinhold (2010), publishing in Pediatircs, concluded that

“If 90% of US families could comply with medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for

6 months, the United States would save $13 billion per year and prevent an excess 911 deaths,

nearly all of which would be in infants ($10.5 billion and 741 deaths at 80% compliance).”

Currently, only 12% of babies are exclusively breastfed at 6 months, and only 56% of babies are exclusively breastfed at 2 days of age!

Breast milk is the first ‘real food’ that an infant eats.  Since it comes directly from the mother’s body human milk is alive.  Beneficial bacteria in human milk populate the baby’s intestinal tract with the correct type of gut flora.  Breast milk also contains the proper proportions and types of protein, fat and carbohydrates for growth and development, hormones and enzymes for proper digestion and utilization of the milk, and antibodies and lymphocytes from the mother to protect the infant from disease.  Furthermore, the taste varies from day to day depending on what the mother ate, accustoming the baby to the tastes of food.  Also, the composition of the milk changes as the baby grows, keeping up with his need for nutrients.

Volumes have been written about the benefits to the baby of mother’s milk.  Although the current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization include exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months and breastfeeding supplemented with weaning foods until the child is 1-2 years old, we are still being told by the medical and formula industries that formula fed babies do just as well as breastfed babies, and that if you cannot or choose not to breastfeed your baby she will still be healthy.  But will she? Bartick and Reinhold looked at 10 different childhood diseases (necrotizing enterocolitis, ear infections, gastroenteritis, hospitalization for lower respiratory tract infections, atopic dermatitis, sudden infant death syndrome [SIDS], childhood leukemia, childhood asthma, type 1 diabetes, and obesity).  Their cost savings are based on the lower likelihood that breastfed babies will contract these serious illnesses or die from them.

This scenario is but one example of the current dichotomy in our nutrition and healthcare systems.  As always, follow the money.  If mothers breastfeed they don’t buy formula and bottles, meaning less money for formula and bottle manufacturers.  If breastfed babies don’t get sick as often or as seriously their parents pay less money to the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries.  If we are serious about lowering healthcare costs in the US, a good beginning would be to encourage as many mothers as possible to breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months and to continue until the child is ready to stop.

Successful breastfeeding is a matter of attitude, information, support, and good nutrition.  It also may require changes to maternity leave policies, and improvements in facilities that allow breastfeeding mothers to comfortably express milk during working hours. Our society’s overall attitude toward mothers breastfeeding in public places is slowly becoming more accepting, but we have a long way to go before mothers will feel totally at ease.  This seems to be an American hang up.  Most of the rest of the world has no problem with it.

1Bartick, M and A. Reinhold. 2010.  The burden of suboptimal breastfeeding in the United States: A pediatric cost analysis.  Pediatrics, 125; e1048-e1056; originally published online Apr 5, 2010.

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