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The Best Food You Don’t Have to Buy

By Michelle Tschida, CNM, IBCLC Alaska Native Medical Center, and Tamar Ben-Yosef, All Alaska Pediatric Partnership

Here’s some food for thought: More lives could be saved annually by increasing breastfeeding rates to recommended levels than lives saved annually by car seats.

Unfortunately, breastfeeding is poorly supported in our country. Car seat laws aside, we never hear a doctor, nurse or grandparent say, “Well, using that car seat seems kind of complicated and inconvenient” or “We don’t want to make that family feel guilty about not using a car seat, so let’s not talk about it.” But parents hear those same messages when it comes to breastfeeding. What they don’t routinely hear is that their decision whether or not to breastfeed is one of the most important health decisions they will make for their child.  

Over the course of the last 30 years, the research has mounted about the overwhelming benefits to breastfeeding. Babies that are breastfed are less likely to get sick from allergies, asthma, and respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.

The benefits extend beyond infancy: Breastfeeding results in lower risks of developing childhood cancers, diabetes and obesity, in addition to lowering the mother’s risks for breast and ovarian cancer. Also, though not guaranteed, mothers have found that breastfeeding, which is a high-calorie burning activity, has helped them shed their extra pregnancy weight quicker.

A recent study has shown that more breastfed babies go on to attain higher education and earn more money than do babies who were not.

Here’s some of the science: Breastmilk contains special fats called polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids support healthy brain growth and development, placing breastfed babies in a better position to become the next Nobel laureates.

And since we’re throwing money into the mix, breastfeeding is considered an economic equalizer, meaning that all parents, regardless of race or social class, have access to the perfect food for their baby and can provide them with the best start to life.

Breastfed babies are held more and have consistent intimate contact with their mothers. This contact along with the repetitive release of the hormone oxytocin (the hormone responsible for childbirth, love, and bonding) during breastfeeding creates a special bond and closeness not easily replicated.

When we at the All Alaska Pediatric Partnership talk about the benefits of breastfeeding, there is one in particular that we look at the closest: the impact that breastfeeding has on rates of child abuse and neglect. In Alaska, where we have some of the highest rates of abuse and neglect in the nation, we also have little support for breastfeeding mothers in the areas of the state that need it most.

Women having babies in rural communities do not have access to lactation consultants like the women of Anchorage do. While our breastfeeding initiation rates are on par with other states and sometimes higher, without the much-needed support and assistance overcoming the difficulties, many of our mothers are switching to formula soon after leaving the hospital. Let’s face it, even breastfeeding does not happen stress-free.

Lastly, many smart folks have done the math and found that the U.S. would save around $13 billion per year in health care costs if breastfeeding rates increased to recommended levels.

Not motivated by doing it for your country? Do it for your own pocket, because families of breastfed babies save money, too. A year of formula costs approximately $1,300. There’s a lot you can do with $1,300, including paying a babysitter to watch the kids while the adults take a much-needed night out on a regular basis.

All of these benefits are seen best when babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives, meaning no other foods or drinks are introduced before the baby is half a year old. After six months of age, the introduction of solid foods with continued breastfeeding through at least the first birthday will provide babies the best start to life.

Michelle Tschida is a Certified Nurse-Midwife and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. She works at the Alaska Native Medical Center helping mothers deliver babies and provides assistance with breastfeeding. She is also a wife and mother of two young sons.

Tamar Ben-Yosef is the executive director for the All Alaska Pediatric Partnership, a nonprofit organization that works to improve health and wellness outcomes for children and families in Alaska through cross-sector partnerships and collaborations, education and communication.

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