Breast milk is without doubt the healthiest food for babies. If you have any doubt, look at advertisements for infant formula. They all state that breast milk is best, and their brand contains ingredients to try to resemble breast milk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and many other health organizations recommend that babies receive breast milk for at least the first year of life. They also recommend babies should not be given any supplemental water, formula or food until they are about 6 months old.

Unfortunately, only about 70 percent of women breast-feed their infants at birth; only 33 percent are still breast-feeding at 6 months and only 18 percent are breast-feeding at 1 year.

Here are just some of the benefits of breast milk for babies:

• Breast milk passes immunity from mother to baby, so breastfed infants have fewer colds, ear infections and other infectious disease.

• Babies will never be allergic to breast milk the way they can be allergic to cow's milk or soy-based formula.

• Breast-feeding reduces the chances of developing allergies, asthma, diabetes, leukemia and lymphoma later in life.

• Breast-fed babies are less likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

• Breast-fed babies are less likely to become obese.

Mothers also benefit from breast-feeding their babies:

• Breastfeeding is simple and saves time. Breast milk is always available; there is no need to measure, mix and warm it before feeding your baby. There are no bottles and nipples to wash and sterilize.

• Breast-feeding saves money. There is no need to buy formula, bottles and nipples.

• Breast-feeding mothers return to their pre-pregnancy weight more quickly.

• Breast-feeding triggers the release of the hormone prolactin, which helps women relax and gives a feeling of well-being.

• Breast-feeding a newborn exclusively (no supplemental formula or food) for the first six months is a natural contraceptive.

• The longer women breast-feed, the less likely they will develop breast cancer or ovarian cancer.

Benefits to society and the environment:

• Breast-feeding lowers health care costs because newborns are healthier.

• Mothers of breast-fed babies miss less work because their babies are healthier.

• Breast-fed children have higher IQs than formula-fed children, say researchers.

• Breast-feeding uses fewer resources than bottle feeding; no paper, plastic and metal packaging is manufactured and then thrown away.

• Children learn that breasts have an important function and are not merely sexual objects.

Breast-feeding is the most loving, nurturing thing a mother can do for her baby.

Sadly, some people believe breast-feeding is wrong and wish to ban breast-feeding women from public. Women who are made to feel embarrassed about it are much less likely to continue breast-feeding for the first year of their child's life.

From personal experience, I know that it is possible and easy to breast-feed in public discreetly. With a little practice and a good nursing bra, it is not even necessary to drape a blanket over the shoulder to hide the baby and breast.

If a woman goes back to work after having a baby, she can use a breast pump while at work and then refrigerate the milk she produces. Childcare providers can then give the baby breast milk in a bottle during the day; the mother can breast-feed at night and on days off.

In a perfect world, breast-feeding women would always be praised and admired. Stores, restaurants and other public places would welcome breast-feeding. Employers would encourage breast-feeding by providing women with a comfortable place to breast-feed or pump their breasts while at work.

Kathryn B. Brown is a family nurse practitioner with a master's degree in nursing from OHSU. Is there a health topic you would like to read about? Send ideas to kbbrown@eastoregonian.com. You can find more local health news and information in the Health section at www.bluemountaineagle.info.

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