A new review on mother's milk, entitled "Benefits and Risks of Breastfeeding," also suggests that it protects babies against many common infectious diseases and certain inflammatory diseases, and possibly helps lower the risk of a child later developing diabetes, lymphoma and some types of leukemia.
Many mothers and medical professionals may not understand that a great number of protective factors unique to human milk are provided by breastfeeding and how much breastfeeding's benefits outweigh its rare but often well-publicized risks, said Dr. Armond Goldman, senior author of the paper and professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
"Substantially more physicians and members of the public should recognize that the overall benefits of breastfeeding are much greater and the overall risks are much less than are benefits and risks from feedings using commercial infant formulas. If you understand the potential risks, most can be identified during pregnancy or shortly after birth and can be prevented or minimized," Goldman said.
UTMB professor of paediatrics David K. Rassin, a co-author of the paper, said, "Although many of us assume that everyone knows breastfeeding is best for infants and the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out with really strong recommendations in favor of it, the prevalence of breastfeeding in the United States is only about 65 percent right now."
"Within the United States, where we've got clean water and don't have a lot of the diseases associated with formula feeding in Third World countries, I think we still have this concept that there really isn't any difference between breastfeeding and formula feeding. One of the points we tried to make in this article is that even in this country there are definitely some health risks associated with formula feeding ó they just tend to involve diseases that take a long time to emerge but may reflect lack of breastfeeding," Rassin added.
Other risks identified by the authors include an insufficient transfer of breast milk, leading to dehydration and growth failure in the infant, and certain vitamin deficiencies as well.
Except for genetic disorders and some infectious diseases, the authors say, none of these risks absolutely precludes breastfeeding if preventive measures are taken. In particular, Rassin said, making sure new mothers have learned proper breastfeeding technique is critical to ensuring babies get enough breast milk to keep them hydrated and growing.
"The way we manage newborns now, getting them out of the hospital in 24 or 48 hours, that's not enough time to really get a mom established on breastfeeding, and moms need the appropriate support to begin the behaviour. It is a natural behaviour, but it's not always an easy behavior to get established ó in fact, it can be very difficult during the first couple of weeks," Rassin said.
The article is published in the current issue of Advances in Pediatrics.