How does lactation and breastfeeding work?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Let’s begin with some definitions. “Lactation” is the formal, medical term for breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a natural way of feeding an infant from birth until (typically) he or she can eat solid foods. Most doctors advise women that breast milk is best for baby, as it has the proper balance of nutrients and also delivers to the baby the mother’s natural defenses against diseases.

A woman’s body begins preparing for the arrival of her infant long before the baby is born. By about six months into a pregnancy, her breasts are ready to produce milk (the glands were hard at work prior to that to be able to make that happen). After the placenta is delivered, a hormone called “prolactin” kicks in, activating the woman’s milk glands. It takes about four or five days after the baby’s birth for true breast milk to begin to flow. The substance that the baby nurses during the days prior is called “colostrum,” a nutrient-rich pre-milk. It is the baby’s sucking for several days that triggers the release of milk.

The baby’s sucking stimulates nerve endings in the woman’s nipples; this stimulation sends signals to the pituitary glands. The pituitary glands release oxytocin, the hormone that causes the milk to be released to the nursing infant. The more a child nurses, the more milk is produced. This flow is called the “let-down reflex.” Not only will a baby’s sucking trigger the let-down reflect. Woman who have nursed can tell you that a baby’s crying or even thinking of her baby can do so; sometimes, even running water will start the let-down reflex

Although commercially-available infant formulas try to duplicate the nutrients found in a mother’s milk, none have ever successfully mimicked breast milk completely. One of the reasons is that a woman’s body continually adjusts to meet the specific needs of her baby. The milk changes its levels of nutrients as the infant grows. The other thing that formula is unable to do is deliver antibodies that protect the baby from illness and from developing allergies. Breast-fed babies have fewer episodes of diarrhea and ear infections. They also do not have as many allergies or rashes as do bottle-fed babies. Breast milk is easily digested, so breast fed infants also experience fewer bouts of constipation. Additionally, studies show that breast-fed babies have fewer problems with speech as they tend to have good jaw alignment and good cheekbones.

Baby isn’t the only one who benefits from nursing; mom does too. Hormones released during nursing stimulate the uterus to contract, which helps it return to normal size and reduces bleeding risks. Nursing also burns calories! Most women put on excess weight when they are pregnant.   Moreover, women who have breast fed have a reduced risk of breast, ovarian, and cervical cancer (although the benefit is strongest in women who have breastfed before the age of 20 and nursed for a minimum of six months. This group has a 50% reduced chance of developing breast cancer.)

Another positive aspect of breast-feeding is its no fuss, no muss nature. There are no bottles or nipples to clean, and it is free. The cost of bottle feeding a baby is high.

One pro-breast feeding website has broken down the numbers: “The average price per oz of formula was about .11 cents per oz.  If you buy a name brand, it is closer to .14 cents per oz, and a generic formula seems to range from .07 cents per oz to about .11 per oz.

30 days X15oz (very low end)  450 oz = $49.50 for the first month

30 days X 30 oz (high end) 900 oz = $99.00 for the first month

Cost for first 1st month:  Between $49.50 and $99.00

Next 11 months:  $1089.00

330 days X 30 oz  Equals 9900 oz X .11 cents per oz

Total for one year:  Between $1,138.5 and $1,188.00

Breastfeeding typically begins within minutes after birth; the baby should nurse every two or three hours, although this varies from infant to infant. Some nurse seemingly constantly at first. But as a general rule, newborns runs between eight to twelve times every twenty-four hours.

Source: Encyclopedia of Medicine, ©2002 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.

mizzwillie eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For a mother who has just given birth to a live infant, the mother's body produces the food the baby needs.  If the mother chooses to breastfeed, the baby should be breastfed within an hour.  The baby "latches on" to the mother's breast where the baby's mouth covers the mother's areola and the infant sucks to get its food.  The first food is not milk for it takes a while for the milk to "come in" or "let down".  The first food the baby gets is colostrum which is filled with nutrients and protective enzymes to help the baby stay healthy and survive.  The baby must learn to suck to get the food from the mother's breasts which requires more effort than a bottle; that is why a mother starts with breastfeeding first.  The mother has to teach the baby HOW to latch on to the breast, or the mother gets more sore than she needs to if the baby latches on to only the nipple instead of the whole areola.  Several positions help the baby learn to latch on properly which nurses in a hospital teach the mother.  The mother must stay relaxed for the milk to flow easily, and the milk supply will increase as the baby's need for more milk increases.  The reason breast feeding is so important is that mother's milk is the perfect blend of nutrients which a baby needs which no formula can duplicate exactly and the formula is expensive.  Breast milk has been shown to protect babies from many health issues including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when the risk increases around the age of 3 months.  For me, who breast fed both of my babies, the incredible closeness and the time spent just being with your child is the ultimate experience I wouldn't give up for anything. For working mothers who express breast milk or take the child with them, I salute their commitment to what is a true plus for the child. For those who cannot breastfeed, I believe closeness is achieved if time is taken to truly BE with the baby. For those who hesitate, another reason to breastfeed besides for the baby is that it uses 500 calories a day! 

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