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Column originally published May 30, 2017

All Babies Benefit From Breastfeeding

Question: I am expecting our first baby. Unlike other mothers, I can only take three months for maternity leave. I wonder whether it is worthwhile for me to breastfeed our baby. I have heard that some mothers became depressed because of difficulty with breastfeeding. This really scares me. Pleas give me your advice.


I am very glad that you are considering breastfeeding. As a paediatrician, I would strongly encourage you to try, even for a few weeks, or a few months. Nursing for a short time can still benefit your baby.

You may have heard that breastfeeding can prevent allergy and asthma. I believe the benefit goes far beyond that. Our body is covered with huge number of bacteria, on our skin as well as inside our mouth and throughout the intestinal tract. There are at least as many bacteria on and inside us as the number of our own cells.

For over a hundred years, scientists have studied the bacteria that make us sick. You would have heard of germs like Strept, Staph, E coli, etc that cause infections. In fact, a very small number of bacteria make us sick. The vast majority of germs on and around us actually keep us healthy, without our knowledge or our permission. Scientists are starting to learn about these healthy germs. Because there are so many strains and varieties, it is impossible to study them individually. As a result, scientists are using the germs’ DNA to learn about their diversity.

What they have found so far surprised us. Many of the germs in a woman’s birth canal are extremely important for the newborn baby. During childbirth, these germs cover the baby’s skin and they are swallowed into the stomach. Because newborn babies don’t have stomach acid at birth, these germs pass right into the intestines, where they grow and multiply, and keep the intestines healthy for life. Some of them even produce essential vitamins for us. That is why it is so important not to use antibiotics unless when it is necessary; antibiotics kill these healthy germs.

Industry has taken advantage of our normal germs. They grow them in large numbers in the laboratory and put them in capsules or add them to food like yogurt, and call them probiotics. Unfortunately, after the first few days and weeks of life, our stomach produces a healthy dose of acid to protect us from infection through what we ingest and swallow. The stomach acid kills most of the probiotics that we take, making them much less effective than the manufacturers’ claim.

For the same reason, many healthy germs are being passed from mothers to babies through breastmilk. The benefit is more than the immune system: these germs are very important for the baby’s health. Because breastfeeding starts right after birth, babies get more of these germs when they don’t have stomach acid. Formula needs to be sterilized by manufacturer. Parents are encouraged to boil and sterilize bottles after each use, for good reason. As a result, formula-fed babies don’t benefit from their mother’s germs through breastmilk.

I hope you get the idea. It is important to start breastfeeding shortly after birth. Many hospitals provide great support for mothers who choose breastfeeding or formula feeding. If you experience any difficulty, there are lactation consultants who can help you. Many communities also have mothers-helping-mothers to support breastfeeding.

However, if you feel that you may be depressed, it is very important to contact your doctor or nurse right away, or go to emergency room. Postpartum depression is serious and can happen to any mother; it is important to recognize it early and seek help as soon as possible.