University at Buffalo Study Questions Breast Milk Merit

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

“Breast is best” has long served as the mantra regarding infant nutrition; however, research from the University at Buffalo seems to indicate that the correlation between nursing and positive health outcomes isn’t as clear cut as once thought.

Researchers believe that mothers who intend to breastfeed but then formula-feed once the baby is born have more information on healthy lifestyle and nutrition and those factors influence baby’s health.

Julie Szumigala, board certified OB-GYN and medical director for the Women’s Ambulatory Center at Kaleida Health, said that nursing babies obtain antibodies through breast milk.

“When the baby is born, it’s like a blank slate without an immune system,” Szumigala said. “The breast milk transmits some of the immune system to the baby. The mom produces antibodies which helps the baby stay healthy.”

Nursing also helps moms and babies feel closer.

“Initially, the baby and mom’s relationship benefits,” Szumigala said, “with the baby attachment and calming the baby.”

She added that moms who nurse have a lifelong lower risk of breast cancer as well.

Many neo-natal intensive care units (NICUs) encourage “kangaroo care,” which involves parents holding their babies skin-to-skin because of its positive effects on respiration, heart rate and wellbeing. At first, premature babies usually cannot take nutrition by mouth, so they would otherwise miss the close contact typically provided during feeding times.

Nursing also stimulates the release of hormones that help mom and baby bond and relax. Newborns’ nervous systems aren’t capable of self regulating and breastfeeding helps.

Premature babies especially benefit from breast milk, as they are particularly vulnerable to gut conditions such as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), which kills many premature infants. Those who survive NEC may require surgery to remove part of their bowel and use a colostomy for life. That’s one of many reasons neonatologists strongly urge mothers to provide breast milk for their premature babies.

Moms benefit from nursing as well, including reduced risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and lasting weight gain. Nursing burns about 500 calories a day. Unless moms compensate for that by increasing caloric intake, breastfeeding can help them lose “baby weight” and prevent lasting weight gain.

Jennifer Lombardo, owner of Buffalo Doula Services, LLC, is a certified labor doula, breastfeeding educator and postpartum doula. In her role as a breastfeeding educator, Lombardo works with mothers who want to breastfeed but encounter difficulties such as low milk supply or little knowledge of breastfeeding.

She believes that providing better and earlier education and support for new moms may help more to successfully breastfeed their babies.

“There’s no question that breast milk is the optimal food, which is why our bodies create it for them,” Lombardo said. “Formula has come a long way and has an important place, but we’re faltering as a society with new moms not providing the support they need to successfully breastfeed.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization recommend babies breastfeed up to a year, and longer if desired. Lombardo said that physical inability to nurse is rarely the reason behind why 80 percent of women who want to breastfeed don’t meet their goal of how long they nurse. She said it’s because they lack knowledge on breastfeeding.

“Pediatricians often don’t have enough education and formula is slapped on like a bandage,” Lombardo said. “A woman struggling to breastfeed needs help to get to the root of what’s happening. Well-meaning family and friends just say, ‘Switch to formula.’”

Lombardo added that skimpy maternity leave policies, lack of support at home, and public shaming of nursing also inhibit moms.

“I think every breastfeeding woman I know has gotten a dirty look or comment because of breastfeeding in public or they stop when the baby reaches a certain age because breastfeeding a toddler is considered disgusting,” Lombardo said.

Njeri Motley, Buffalo-based certified birth doula through Life Cycles Collective Doulas, is a mother of six. She said that she has met only one mother who didn’t produce enough milk and needed to supplement with formula.

Like Lombardo, she believes more social support for moms would encourage more breastfeeding, including education on nursing.

“With Gov. Cuomo implementing the pilot program for doula reimbursement, that’s a good gateway for doulas to educate moms,” Motley said. “We’re there for moms to help them find the resources they need.”

Motley also lauded area hospitals for encouraging breastfeeding and offering the services of doulas and lactation consultants in-house.

Community-based resources include a breastfeeding “cafe” or La Leche League meeting for tips and support. In addition to learning about latch, holding positions and more, women learn about the value of breastfeeding

UB Study Based on 1,000 Participants

The University at Buffalo study on breastfeeding was led by Kerri Raissian, an assistant professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy and co-authored by Jessica Su, assistant professor of sociology at University at Buffalo.

Researchers based their findings on information from more than 1,000 participants in the Infant Feeding Practices Study II, which was designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

Raissian and Su sought to look at what factors determine positive health outcomes for infants to help “contextualize the tradeoffs that a lot of mothers have to make when deciding how to feed their children,” Raissian said in a statement released by UB.

In the same release, Su stated, “It’s important to more carefully quantify the trade-offs between breast milk and formula given the strong breastfeeding recommendations and the realistic challenges that many mothers face, particularly among working mothers.”