• Dr Peter Chew

Breast milk is the best

She had swinging fever of over 38 deg C. Her breasts were swollen, hard, painful and extremely tender to touch.

Mrs. B, a first time Mum who had given birth three days ago, was suffering from severe breast engorgement. Her skin over the breasts was taut, shiny, inflamed and red. Lumps appeared under her armpits and both her hands and fingers were numb.

However, she was keen to breastfeed her child. Using hot towels, she gently massaged the breasts before feeding. This stimulated the let-down reflex and softened the sore and swollen breasts. The fever gradually subsided. With encouragement from her husband, she finally succeeded in breastfeeding her newborn.

Breastfeeding is the natural way and human milk – made specifically for this – is the best source of nourishment for the infant. Breastfeeding’s health benefits are well known and extend beyond basic nutrition.

In addition to having all the vitamins and nutrients the baby need, breast milk is packed with disease-fighting substances that protect the baby from gastrointestinal trouble, respiratory problems and ear infections. It also reduces the risks of the child developing food allergies and obesity, and boosts his intelligence.

That is why the World Health Organisation recommends a minimum of two years of breastfeeding, with exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. The American Academy of Paediatrics and Singapore’s Health Promotion Board have similar recommendations.

Breastfeeding is also beneficial to the mother. It helps her to shed weight more quickly and lowers her stress levels by releasing oxytocin, the hormone which promotes relaxation. Many studies affirm that breast feeding protects women against breast and ovarian cancer.

I am an advocate of breastfeeding and I believe that most mothers are capable of doing so. When I was a junior doctor more than 30 years ago, breastfeeding was a taboo. Nowadays, it is popular again. This is probably due to improved socio-economic status, increasing affluence and better public awareness and education.

Successful breastfeeding begins from pregnancy. If I could provide first-time parents with prior knowledge of breastfeeding and how it is done, they would be less apprehensive after the delivery. Studies have found that counselling during pregnancy results in more mothers breastfeeding exclusively and for much longer too.

Breastfeeding is a natural act it can also be learnt behaviour. In Mrs. B case, her husband’s support and encouragement form close family members got her off to a good start. In such cases, the wife is also more likely to breastfeed longer.

In fact, many young parents today have concerns about breastfeeding, such as fear of the baby not getting enough milk, sore nipples and engorgement and of sagging breasts. This is in spite of the availability of many articles and books that deal with the concerns and dispel the myths.

One piece of advice I strongly give is to put the baby to the breast as soon as he is born. The baby is more alert and the suckling reflex is the strongest in the half hour after birth. Research has shown that many babies take only minutes to latch on and will start breastfeeding all by themselves.

Caesarean birth is no barrier to breastfeeding. The mother can still hold her baby against the breast soon after birth, with some help from the midwife or husband. The skin-to-skin contact keeps the baby warm. The baby may smell the breast, lick it or nuzzle it all this will help establish and promote breastfeeding.

Another key to successful breastfeeding is getting the baby to latch on properly. The first step is to position the baby at the breast in a comfortable and relaxed position. Brush his lips with the nipple to encourage him to open his mouth wide. Then bring him quickly to the breast and not the other way round.

A baby who latches on poorly has more difficulty getting milk. This may cause the mother to have nipple pain. If the baby does not get milk well, he will usually stay on the breast for longer period, aggravating the pain and causing more problems.

This article is dedicated to all breastfeeding mothers – whose milk is the best gift for their children.

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