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a mother breastfeeding her child

The importance of breastmilk and supporting breastfeeding parents

Breastmilk is the nutritional ‘gold standard’ of early life nutrition and contains all the essential nutrients required to support an infant’s healthy growth and development¹. As a result, breastfeeding is promoted globally as the optimum method of infant feeding¹, but the UK has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in Europe². In the following guide for healthcare professionals we take a look at the importance of breastfeeding and the significant health benefits for mother and infant.

The composition of breastmilk

The composition of breastmilk is highly variable and is adapted to the nutritional needs of an individual infant and will vary over time³`⁴. The graphic below shows the general composition of breastmilk, which contains all the essential nutrients to support healthy growth and development, including development of the infant’s immune system.

The evidence-based benefits of breastfeeding

Breastfeeding reduces the baby’s risk of developing infections, diarrhoea and vomiting (with fewer visits to the hospital as a result), sudden infant death syndrome, childhood leukaemia, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease in adulthood and allergic disease¹⁴`¹⁵. More generally, breastfeeding benefits the infant’s developing immune system, supports development of the infant’s gastrointestinal tract, and helps build a strong emotional bond between mother and baby¹⁶`¹⁷.

Additionally, breastfeeding has been shown to lower the mother’s risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and obesity, as well as help build a strong emotional bond between mother and baby¹⁴.

The official advice

The Department of Health (DoH) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond¹⁸`¹⁹.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) states: “Breastfeeding contributes to the health of both the mother and child in the short and longer term. Mothers should be made aware of these benefits and those who choose to breastfeed should be supported by a service that is evidence-based and delivers an externally audited, structured programme²⁰.”

Respecting the mother’s right to choose

All women, including those who do not breastfeed, should be supported in their choice and made to feel confident in their relationship with their baby while being provided with practical and emotional support²¹.

The Royal College of Midwives’ (RCM) latest position on infant feeding (June 2018) states: “We recognise that some women cannot or do not wish to breastfeed and rely on formula milk. They must be given all the advice and support they need on safe preparation of bottles and responsive feeding to develop a close and loving bond with their baby²².”

Supporting the breastfeeding mother²³

NICE offers guidance for mothers on infant feeding and advises that culturally appropriate support on breastfeeding should be available to all mothers. Mothers should be encouraged to have skin-to-skin contact with their infants as soon as possible after the birth.

During the antenatal period, mothers should be asked about their feeding intentions, have any questions or concerns about breastfeeding addressed and be reassured that support will be available. Following delivery, from the first feed, women should be offered skilled breastfeeding support (from a healthcare professional, mother-to-mother or peer support).

Advice should cover how to start and continue successful breastfeeding, support with positioning and attachment, assessing successful breastfeeding, expression and storage of breastmilk, and preventing, identifying and treating breastfeeding concerns.

How fathers and partners can support breastfeeding²⁴

Fathers and partners should be helped to understand the benefits of breastfeeding and encouraged to help support a new breastfeeding mother by supporting their partner’s decision to breastfeed and boosting their confidence with encouragement — which can be either verbal, emotional or practical in nature.

Fathers should know how breastfeeding works and be aware of what constitutes normal behaviour in breastfed infants, so they can share in the care of their child while bonding in other ways — through playing, bathing, winding, changing nappies, skin-to-skin contact and carrying the infant in a sling.

Communication is key too, so fathers can listen to and talk honestly with their partner about finding their way with the new infant. It can be a great help to reduce the household chores, so mothers can feed their infants for as long and as often as they need to.

Likewise, taking care of other children in the family can be vital in helping a partner to breastfeed without interruption, especially in the early stages where breastfeeding is becoming established. At the same time, encouraging a partner to eat and drink healthily and regularly ensures the mother will be in peak health during the breastfeeding period.

40 years of early life science

Nutricia Early Life Nutrition has over 40 years of breast milk expertise with a dedicated team of around 250 specialist scientists collaborating with hospitals, laboratories and universities worldwide to ensure we’re leaders in this field.

Our careline

Our free healthcare professional helpline is open from 8am to 8pm, Monday to Friday. Just phone 0800 996 1234 for expert advice on breastfeeding and nutrition, including common infant feeding problems such as cows’ milk allergy, colic, constipation and reflux.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Breastfeeding is best for babies. Infant formula is suitable from birth when babies are not breastfed. Follow-on milk is only for babies over 6 months, as part of a mixed diet and should not be used as a breastmilk substitute before 6 months. We advise that all formula milks including the decision to start weaning should be made on the advice of a doctor, midwife, health visitor, public health nurse, dietitian, pharmacist or other professional responsible for maternal and child care. Foods for special medical purposes should only be used under medical supervision. May be suitable for use as the sole source of nutrition for infants from birth, and/or as part of a balanced diet from 6–12 months. Refer to label for details.

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  2. RCPCH. Position statement: breastfeeding in the UK. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, May 2018. Available at: https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/resources/position-statement-breastfeeding-uk[Accessed December 2018].
  3. Hassiotou et al. Maternal and infant infections stimulate a rapid leukocyte response in breastmilk. Clinical and Translational Immunology. 2013. 2(4): e3.
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