Although the benefits of breastfeeding increase the longer you nurse, for some mothers, a long breastfeeding relationship just isn't possible. Even if you can only nurse your baby for two weeks, the benefits to both you and your infant are measurable. Plus, after getting your baby off to the best start possible, if you do decide to nurse longer, establishing a healthy breastfeeding relationship during those early days helps immensely.
The first few days after birth, your breasts produce colostrum, a concentrated form of milk that is high in protein and low in fat. It also contains high levels of antibodies and immunoglobulins, two immune factors that protect your newborn from viruses and bacteria. No other food in the world has such concentrated immune boosters, so even if your baby gets nothing else of your milk, you can feel confident knowing you provided this powerful first food. Colostrum also acts as a gentle laxative, helping rid the baby's body of meconium, the tarry substance that builds up in the intestines while the baby is still in the womb. Babies who pass their meconium more rapidly are less likely to experience jaundice, so early breastfeeding helps prevent this potentially dangerous condition.
A few days after birth, your breasts will start producing actual milk, which contains the precise concentrations of fat, protein, carbohydrates and nutrients your baby needs during the time in her life when she is most sensitive to the food she eats. The immune factors that were present in colostrum are also in mature milk, just at lower concentrations, so every day your baby nurses, she gets an additional immune boost that protects her against colds, ear infections and other illnesses.
Benefits to Mom
In addition to all of the benefits a baby gets from even two weeks of breastfeeding, the mother also gains some benefits. Breastfeeding in the days after birth releases hormones that shrink your uterus more quickly and help diminish postpartum bleeding. The hormones released during breastfeeding also help you sleep better, making you able to get deeper sleep in a shorter period of time so that you feel more rested. During the first hectic weeks after birth, this can be invaluable during the time you are most likely to be sleep-deprived. You'll also get the precious bonding time that's so important for both you and your infant during those first two weeks of breastfeeding.
Although a small minority of women truly cannot breastfeed past the first few weeks after birth, if you want to continue beyond that point but are having difficulties, a trained lactation consultant might be able to help you solve your breastfeeding problems. The benefits of breastfeeding increase the longer you do it, so every day you give your baby a little more of your milk, the better off both of you are. Some women find that if continuing exclusive breastfeeding isn't possible, partial breastfeeding supplemented with formula or alternatives such as pumping milk are viable options they had not considered. Even after the breastfeeding relationship has been interrupted by illness or work, it may be possible to start lactating again and return to breastfeeding if desired.
- BabyCenter.com; How Breastfeeding Benefits You and Your Baby; July 2010
- Healthy Children; Colostrum: Your Baby's First Meal; January 2011
- Sutter Health; Breastfeeding Introduction
- La Leche League International: The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, 8th Edition; Dianne Wiessinger, Diana West and Teresa Pitman; Ballantine Books; 2010