Breastfeeding Nature’s Medicine?

Supporting Breast-Feeding Can Save Lives, Ease Health-Care Burden

Woman Breastfeeding In the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Sky Ridge Medical Center, the tiny bottles are carefully labeled, strictly monitored and stored under lock and key. Nurses reach for them probably more than they reach for anything else in their job of caring for the hospital’s littlest patients, born ill or too soon. It’s not life-saving medicine these nurses routinely grab. But it’s close.

The bottles that line the cooler shelves are filled with mothers’ milk, a substance that can make such a difference in his patients’ lives that NICU Director Dr. Joe Toney has joined efforts in spreading the message: Moms who can breast-feed should, and everyone from doctors and dads to buddies and bosses must offer support. “The benefits have been shown: It reduces the risk of SIDS, obesity, diabetes,” Dr. Toney says. “In the NICU, we consider breast milk a medicine, not just nutrition,” he says, noting that breast milk provides growth factors and protein not available in formula and helps prevent infection and disease, such as necrotizing enterocolitis, a sometimes-deadly intestinal disorder that most often strikes preemies. 

Dr. Toney is proud of his patients’ mothers. While initially many of them cannot breast-feed naturally, sometimes for weeks, and must pump their milk, 80 percent of them are providing breastmilk at the time of their babies’ discharge. But statistics tell him most of them will stop nursing too soon.

Dr. Joe Toney, director NICU

Four out of five American women now initiate breast-feeding in newborns, according to data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and applauded for reaching the Healthy People 2010 national objective. But that 75 percent rate drops after discharge, taking a dramatic plunge at six months, when only 13 percent of moms are still breast-feeding exclusively.

Moves like President Obama’s health care reform mandate requiring employers to provide time and a place for nursing employees and the First Lady’s inclusion of breast-feeding in her campaign to end childhood obesity make a difference. But education in the home is just as important, especially during those early weeks, Dr. Toney says. “Feeding 40 minutes every two hours is a very normal pattern.” And that means two hours from the start of one feeding to the start of the next. “So it doesn’t include the getting up and changing diapers before or the burping breaks and putting baby back down after. You start doing the math, and you see — that’s mostly all these moms are doing.”

When they don’t understand that the demands are normal, or they don’t have the support, moms can sabotage their efforts, thinking baby’s not getting enough milk and turning to formula to supplement. Nursing less can decrease milk supply and launch a downward spiral.

The best advice: Seek help from professionals, understand that the heavy feeding demands don’t last forever, and know that, as with anything else, with some perseverance, baby and mom will become a synchronized team.