World Breastfeeding Week- A Time to Recognize Its Benefits By Gilbert Lawrence
The first week in August is designated World Breastfeeding Week to highlight the beneficial role breast feeding plays in the lives of both newborn babies and their mothers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and up to one year of a baby’s life, with other supplemental foods added after the first year. There is indisputable data indicating that breast milk is better suited to a newborn’s nutritional needs than infant formula. Premature babies, who have underdeveloped intestines and immature immune systems, benefit from easily digestible breast milk.
Since the milk is enriched with the mother’s immune cells and immune globulins, breastfeeding also prevents a number of diseases in infants.
The act of breast feeding stimulates the production of various hormones in the mother - chief of which is Prolactin and Oxytocin. Both these hormones are produced in the brain. Prolactin also called the “mothering hormone” increases breast milk glands and milk production. Prolactin suppresses estrogen production and ovulation. Oxytocin the “bonding hormone” has an effect on the breast and uterus. The hormonal effect on the uterus helps induce labor; and after birth shrinks the uterus to normal size and reduces bleeding.
In addition to breast milk’s nutritional and health advantages, there is yet another significant reason to breastfeed. Most mothers prefer to begin feeding their babies from the left breast, before switching to the other side. This is evident even in left-hand mothers. The explanation for this preference: the mother soon perceives that the newborn is more relaxed when nursing from the left breast, where the infant is soothed by listening to the mother’s heart beat -- sounds and rhythms the baby is attuned to during pregnancy.
Listening with the right ear while feeding off the mother’s left breast results in the baby’s right brain developing into the “emotional brain,” while the left brain expands into the dominant or “speech brain.” In 1925, Austrian psychiatrist, Von Economo, described VEN cells which are special neurons in a small portion of the brain called the Insula. Interestingly, the right insula has more VEN cells than the left insula.
The VEN cells increase rapidly in number during the first and second month of life, a development probably assisted by breastfeeding and mother-infant bonding. After peaking at eight months, the VENs gradually decrease in number until the child reaches the age of four, and they remain at a constant number into adulthood.
Over the last decade, neuroscientists have begun to pay special attention to the Insula and its related structures. The insula is involved with emotions such as self-control, self-awareness, happiness, guilt, embarrassment, intuition, and shame.
In short, breastfeeding enhances the Insula, which improves the cognitive ability of the child, and plays a major role in developing personality and character. A dysfunctional insula is linked to addictions, autism, various forms of dementias and other neuro-psychiatric illnesses.
The act of breast feeding aroused the five senses of the feeding infant. These arousals help stimulate the corresponding parts of the baby’s brain, and the connections between brain cells. The act of breastfeeding also arouses reciprocal touch sensors in the skin of the mother and infant which excites the insula and causes the release of “happy hormones,” and conversely, the suppression of “stress hormones” in the brain of both the mother and child.
In short, breastfeeding, beyond the physical nourishment of the baby, also nourishes the mind of the baby and the mother. All these mental effects have short-term and long-term health benefits long after the period of lactation.
Gilbert Lawrence, M.D., specializes in radiation oncology and radiology with Mohawk Valley Health System.