Most parents of newborn babies have heard that 'breast is best'. But although 96% of children are breastfed soon after birth, only 15% of mums are still breastfeeding exclusively 5 months later. So, what's preventing some parents from continuing to breastfeed, and how can they persist with longer-term breastfeeding, if that's their wish?
What the research says
According to the 2010 Australian national infant feeding survey (the most recent Australian research available), around 1 in 7 babies are still given only breastmilk at 5 months old. This is called 'exclusive breastfeeding'. Solid food is then typically introduced to babies' diets at around 6 months.
The survey, which involved more than 28,700 children, also found that by the time they are 6 months old, 4 in 10 babies are receiving no breastmilk at all.
What the guidelines say
Australia's dietary guidelines recommend exclusive breastfeeding of infants until they're 6 months old, with the introduction of solid foods at around 6 months, then to continue breastfeeding until the age of 12 months — and beyond, if it suits the mother and child.
Breastmilk is free and, for many parents, convenient. It can help protect infants against conditions such as diarrhoea, and respiratory and ear infections. Breastfeeding may also reduce the risk of obesity and chronic diseases in later life.
For mums, it may reduce the risk of some cancers (such as breast cancer) and osteoporosis. Breastfeeding can promote bonding between mother and baby.
Why women stop breastfeeding
Continuing to breastfeed is a challenge for many mums, even if they're well aware of the guidelines and benefits, and have the best intentions. It's not always easy, and if their baby isn't attaching properly they can end up with cracked, bleeding or sore nipples and mastitis. Some women also experience engorgement or cluster feeding.
Poor attachment, "not enough breastmilk for the child", and an unsettled baby were the top reasons for ceasing to breastfeed cited in the Australian national infant feeding survey (by parents who stopped breastfeeding entirely before 6 months).
Out of milk: supply concerns
While having 'low supply' of milk is a common concern for breastfeeding mums, in many cases this may be a case of what they think is a low supply, rather than a real issue of low supply, according to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).
In other words, a mother may think she's not producing enough milk when she actually is. Most women are capable of breastfeeding.
In rare cases, a woman may have breasts that do not produce enough milk due to 'insufficient' glandular tissue (IGT), the tissue responsible for producing milk in the breast, reports the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA). Even if a woman has IGT, it is likely that she can still breastfeed her baby. Visit the ABA to read about options for women with confirmed IGT.
Low milk supply may also be caused by postpartum haemorrhage, retained placenta, maternal illness, past breast surgery, sleepiness or illness in an infant, infrequent feeds and poor attachment. But help is available to mothers and babies who wish to continue feeding.
How do I know if my baby is getting enough milk?
Here are 4 signs that a baby is getting enough milk, according to the Australian Breastfeeding Association:
At least 5 very wet disposable nappies or 6 very wet cloth nappies in 24 hours. Urine should be odourless and clear or very pale. A very young baby will usually have 3 or more soft or runny bowel movements each day for several weeks. Strong, dark urine or formed bowel motions suggest that the baby needs more breastmilk and you should seek medical advice.
Good skin colour and muscle tone. If you gently pinch your baby's skin, it should spring back into place.
Your baby is alert and reasonably contented and does not want to feed constantly. It is, however, normal for babies to have times when they feed more frequently and to wake for night feeds.
Some weight gain and growth in length and head circumference.
Tips for breastfeeding success
When it comes to breastfeeding, attachment is everything. You're very unlikely to experience soreness from feeding your baby often, but your nipples can become very sore if the baby is not properly attached to your breast during feeds.
Even though it may take a while to get the hang of breastfeeding, it will become easier and quicker with practice. Learn how to position and attach your baby on the breast properly; ask your midwife to help you. You can follow the helpful guide on 'How to position your baby' here.
Watch this video for more advice on good attachment.
Video provided by Raising Children Network.
Where to seek help
If you'd like to continue breastfeeding but are finding it a challenge, contact these support services for advice and help.
- Call the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby helpline 7 days a week, 7am to midnight, on 1800 882 436 to speak with a maternal child health nurse.
- Visit the Australian Breastfeeding Association or call the Breastfeeding Helpline on 1800 686 268
- Contact the maternal, child and family health service in your state or territory. Find your nearest centre using the healthdirect service finder.
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