The benefits of breastfeeding your baby extend well beyond the formative years of his or her life and are well-known and scientifically-proven, yet it remains a source of controversy across the nation. This summer, when Mayor Bloomberg announced his “Latch On NYC” initiative, support and outrage sparked a new flame in the age-old controversy. As battles wage on both sides, the reasons against breastfeeding lose traction as the results of a new study finds that breastfeeding isn’t just about the welfare of the baby – mom reaps some major benefits too.
At the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting, the results of a study were presented, finding that breastfeeding not only benefits infants, but mothers too. Researchers found that women who do not breastfeed or share a bed with their infant have lower optimal daily levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Cortisol is essential for daily functioning, regulating energy metabolism and plays a crucial role in the “fight or flight” mechanism. However, the levels of this hormone must be maintained in delicate balance – too much can lead to excessive fatigue, impaired immunity and even weight gain.
During the study, researchers observed the steepest declines in cortisol levels throughout the day among mothers who breast-fed but did not co-sleep with their infants. Studies have shown that cortisol levels that follow this pattern are associated with healthy individuals – people with a low risk of cancer and heart disease.
Dr. Anita Petruzzelli of BodyLogicMD of Hartford says that breast-feeding goes beyond healthy cortisol levels for moms, “It’s easier and less expensive to breast-feed and the skin to skin contact can also increase oxytocin, a ‘feel good hormone.’ Another benefit is weight loss – if one does not consume extra calories while breast feeding. Long-term breastfeeding moms have a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and postpartum depression.”
The researchers believe that co-sleeping, a habit favorably touted by attachment parenting advocates, results in sleep deprivation for the parent leading to stress and, therefore, raised cortisol levels. Petruzzelli agrees, “Sharing a bed with an infant can lead to sleep deprivation. A lack of sleep is often perceived as stressful and may adversely affect the mother’s health and relationship with the infant.”
Breastfeeding will likely remain a controversial topic. Formula marketers have waged war on breastfeeding, often sending messages that breastfeeding is inferior to formula use. In fact an analysis of breastfeeding rates from 1973 to 2000, showed that increases in formula marketing campaigns contributed to the steady decline of breastfeeding, even when a majority of physicians recommended breastfeeding.
Bloomberg’s plan is to curb the heavy reliance on formula – a factor some believe has contributed to the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease in the U.S. More than 90 percent of infants born in New York City are fed breast milk initially after birth, but more than two-thirds switch to formula within two months. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of the infant’s life and continue breastfeeding while introducing new foods up to one year.
Research has shown that hospitals make it too easy for moms to give up on breastfeeding and switch to formula. In an email to Time Healthland, Stephanie Rodriguez recalled how the nurse encouraged her to use formula when her daughter had a hard time latching on to her breast. Initially, Rodriguez accepted the formula, but continued to work at breastfeeding. Despite her success breastfeeding while in the hospital and desire to continue breastfeeding at home, she was sent home with a free bag of formula. Another push toward formula for the new mom.
The trial phase of Latch On NYC, taking place at NYU Langone Medical Center, has seen significant improvements in the number of women choosing to breastfeed – rates have increased from 39 percent to 68 percent. An outcome that has startled the International Formula Council, who were certain limiting access to formula would not change the choices made by new mothers.
Renee Mackey, a lactation consultant for the La Leche League in Colorado and mother of three is not surprised by the results of the study or the success of Bloomberg’s plan. She says, “Breastfeeding is an empowering experience. Being able to feed your baby with your own body and watching your baby continue to thrive is amazing. Breast milk is readily available, always the right temperature, always sterile, and free.”