According to recent studies, India ranks the lowest in breastfeeding practices among South Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Only 44% of women are able to breastfeed their new born within an hour of birth and only 55% of all babies born in India receive breastmilk exclusively, within the first six months.

There can be various reasons why India is lagging behind other countries in breastfeeding. Traditional practices encourage mothers to discard colostrum, which is milk produced right after a child is born, whereas WHO recommends that colostrum is the perfect food for the baby. Lack of support from a woman's family, lack of maternity protection measures and proper information are also factors contributing to the falling rates of breastfeeding. Thus, despite the rise in the number of deliveries happening, the breastfeeding rates are decreasing and more and more people are switching to breastmilk substitutes. When it comes to supporting women with maternity protection, a lot more needs to be done so that they can easily juggle between returning to work and breastfeeding.

WHO recommends that children should be breastfed exclusively for at least 6 months and then along with other foods from there on up to two years of age or beyond. This is because breastmilk contains all the ideal nutrients that a baby requires. It contains vitamins, fat and protein which help the baby grow, and it is in a form that is easier to digest, as compared to infant formula.

Benefits for the Baby:

Breast milk also contains antibodies which help the baby fight bacteria and viruses. It also lowers the risk of allergies and asthma in the baby, along with prevention of sudden infant death syndrome. Babies who are fed breastmilk only for 6 months are less prone to ear infections, diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses. Their visits to the doctor are also less frequent. Breastfeeding is beneficial from an emotional aspect as well as skin-to-skin touching and the physical closeness of the baby and the mother secures their bond. Breastfed babies also tend to gain the right amount of weight as they grow up, which prevents cancer, diabetes and other such diseases.

The Protection that Breastfeeding Offers to Mothers

Breastfeeding has benefits for the mother as well since it burns extra calories and thus, can help you lose weight. Breastfeeding also releases oxytocin which causes the uterus to shrink to its size, before pregnancy. The risk of breast cancer is also reduced for women who breastfeed their babies as breast cells become more resistant to cancer-causing mutations. Also, women who breastfeed tend to make certain lifestyle changes such as abstinence from alcohol and smoking, along with following a healthy diet. These lifestyle changes can also reduce the risk of breast cancer. Women who breastfeed also have less risk of osteoporosis as compared to women who don't.

While women are breastfeeding, they have fewer menstrual cycles which cause the level of estrogen to reduce and in turn, the risk of breast cancer also decreases. Studies have shown that for each year that a woman breastfeeds her babies, the risk of breast cancer declines by 4%. The risk of breast cancer also decreases in women who have a family history of the disease by up to 60%, due to breastfeeding. The risk of ovarian cancer in women who have never breastfed is 1.5% more as compared to women who breastfed for 18 months, as per research. The reason breastfeeding helps prevent ovarian cancer because it helps delay ovulation (release of an egg from one of a woman's ovaries). Women who breastfed for at least 12 months or more are at a lesser risk of developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure as well as cardiovascular diseases, as compared to women who never breastfed. Breastfeeding may help prevent type 2 diabetes as it helps increase insulin sensitivity and boosts glucose metabolism. The longer a woman breastfeeds, the lesser the risk. Breastfeeding also lowers the rate of postpartum depression in women. According to some studies, breastfeeding can significantly affect the baby's brain development in the long-term.

For new mothers, it may take some time for them to get a hang of it as it is a learning process, but a few tips can make it easier for you. Things may not go as smoothly as planned, but mothers should relax. The baby will learn slowly and gradually. Mothers should also take a position that is comfortable for them as well as the baby when breastfeeding their baby.

To keep the production of milk ongoing, nursing should be done consistently. Mothers can also use breast pumps, once they get back to working or have to travel. In this way, the baby can get breast milk even when you're not feeding and it wouldn't have to rely on breast milk substitutes. Production of milk varies from woman to woman, thus you shouldn't be worried that you're not lactating enough. Do not rely on supplements for increasing breast milk production. Also, consult your doctor if you feel like you are struggling with breastfeeding. Do not get discouraged as there are professionals who can teach mothers everything about breastfeeding.

  • By Dr. Garima Jain, MBBS, DNB (OBG), Sr. Consultant Gynaecologist & Obstetrics, Apollo Cradle – Brookefield, Bangalore.