Breast-feeding seems like it should be a natural, easy process. But many women have trouble initiating breast-feeding. Getting babies to “latch on” is not always instinctive or effortless. It certainly wasn’t for Donna Sinnott.
After the birth of her first child, Sinnott struggled with breast-feeding. “I was exhausted with a hungry baby and had no idea what to do,” she says. “All I knew about breast-feeding was that it’s supposed to work. When it didn’t, I felt like a failure.”
Getting the baby to latch on to the nipple, knowing how much to feed the baby, overcoming difficulties with milk supply—none of that information was delivered to Sinnott. That was in 1992, long before lactation nurses became staples in maternity wards.
After she took her baby home, Sinnott searched for expert help and happened to connect with a woman who was training to be a lactation consultant. “She taught me about a correct latch, and from then on, there was no problem,” Sinnott says.
Had Sinnott not found the right help, she probably would’ve given up on breast-feeding. Many women do. Figuring out the mechanics of lactation can take two to three weeks, says Dr. Yun-Lin Cheng, an OB-GYN specialist with Crozer-Keystone Family Care and Women’s Health in Broomall. That can be a tough stretch. Moms have to wake up every few hours, they are healing from giving birth, and many women have to go back to work because they don’t get extended maternity leave. Doing some—or all—of that while trying to breast-feed can be challenging, and formula presents an easy alternative. “If mom isn’t getting support at home, she may give up on breast-feeding just to get the baby fed,” Cheng says. “But we now have a lot of ways to help women with lactation.”
That’s the goal of events held at local hospitals to celebrate National Breastfeeding Month in August. Crozer-Keystone Health System, Main Line Health, Penn Medicine, Brandywine Hospital and other healthcare centers educate and inspire new moms to breast-feed. Ample advice is available from doctors and lactation nurses. Sinnott is one of them.
Now a lactation consultant at Paoli Hospital and chair of the Main Line Health Lactation Committee, Sinnott has dedicated her professional life to helping women breast-feed. Her career started when she became a Nursing Mothers Alliance counselor after the birth of her second child. When she joined Paoli Hospital in 2005, the lactation support for moms was scarce. That was typical of American hospitals. Breast-feeding wasn’t a priority, Sinnott says.
Due to the common use of powerful drugs to induce “twilight sleep” during labor, breast milk was thought to be tainted and unsafe for infants to ingest. In the early 1950s, Abbott Laboratories introduced commercial formula that was touted as being similar to lactation and, therefore, called Similac. “It was easy, safe and widely used,” Sinnott says.
But Sinnott and Cheng believe that “breast is best,” and the medical community agrees. Now, hospitals do everything possible to encourage breast-feeding. It starts as soon as the baby is born. Post-delivery, immediate skin-to-skin contact between moms and babies is an important first step. “During the labor process, contractions tell the baby to get ready to eat and breathe,” Sinnott explains. “Colostrum, moms’ first milk, tastes like amniotic fluid. Babies going tummy down and skin-to-skin with their moms stimulates their parasympathetic system, encouraging them to rest and digest.”
Cheng touts the health benefits of breast-feeding. Not only is breast milk more easily digested than formula, but it also is infused with valuable antibodies that are passed from mom to baby, resulting in decreased incidences of colic, ear infections and upper respiratory infections. Breast-feeding has health benefits for moms, too. Suckling produces hormones in women’s bodies that help them recover from delivery. It also helps them burn calories and may act as birth control. “I wouldn’t exclusively rely on that,” Cheng says. “Some women do ovulate while breast-feeding, so a pregnancy can occur. But the likelihood is low.”
How long women should breast-feed is a hot topic. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of two years; a one-year minimum is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Cheng and Sinnott urge their patients to breast-feed for at least six months. “The majority are unable to do that, and the average is a few months,” Cheng says. “Whatever women do should be accepted as a personal decision.
At the same time, we support women breast-feeding for as long as they can.”