When Janel Zeigler was pregnant with her daughter Zoee, she had a lot of decisions to make — how to decorate the nursery, when to start buying supplies like diapers and would she use disposable or cloth?
One thing she didn’t have to give a second thought to, though, was whether or not she would breast or formula feed her daughter.
“I’m a dietitian,” said Zeigler. “So it had always been the plan for me as a mom to breastfeed, as long as it was feasible to do so.”
The United States Breastfeeding Committee has designated August as National Breastfeeding Month, a time during which the many benefits of breastfeeding are highlighted.
Zeigler and her husband, Bryn, live in Lewisburg. Zoee, now five months old, is their first child.
“I wanted to breastfeed for at least the first six months because I wanted her to get the nutrients that breastmilk provides, and also because it is a great bonding experience,” she said. “That is a huge plus.”
Heather McHenry, an internationally board certified lactation consultant at Geisinger Medical Center and registered nurse, said Zeigler’s reasons for choosing to breastfeed are common — and noted she’s exactly right about the benefits for both mom and baby — the list is extensive.
“For mom, a lot of the benefits include a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well as a decreased risk of bleeding after delivery,” she said. “The uterus will go back down to pre-pregnancy size quickly. Breastfeeding can also help you lose the pregnancy weight sooner.”
In addition, said McHenry, research has shown that there is a reduced risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes in women who breastfeed and breastfed newborns have lower risks of asthma, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, ear and respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome, according to the CDC.
Babies who are breastfed have a lower risk of pneumonia, ear infections gastrointestinal tract disease, eczema and more.
Dr. Stacy Cummings, vice chair of outpatient pediatrics at Geisinger Medical Center, explained that antibodies transferred from mom minimize infection risk as well as provide exactly the right nutrition for baby.
“Breast milk has exactly the right protein and calorie intake for baby and provides good vitamins and minerals,” she said.
Made for baby
Incredibly, moms’ bodies are smart enough to know if they’ve had a pre-term baby or full-term baby, said Cummings, and the milk will be specifically tailored for that baby.
“I’m still struck by the human body being able to do that,” she said.
The risk for postpartum depression also decreases with moms who breastfeed, said Cummings.
Kelly Everitt, also an international board certified lactation consultant, has 24 years of experience. She is also an RN who has worked with Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg for 33 years.
“We always talk about the baby and the benefits of breast feeding, but there are great benefits to mom, too” said Everitt. “There are lower risk of cancers — both breast and ovarian — and heart disease, too.”
While it might not be true for every nursing mom, Everitt said the majority of moms do lose the baby weight faster due to breastfeeding.
For Zeigler, the pregnancy weight hasn’t completely disappeared, but breastfeeding has made a significant difference, she said.
“The problem is that when breastfeeding you have to take in approximately an extra 500 calories per day,” she said.
According to a 2018 report issued by the U.S. Centers on Disease Control and Prevention, 83 percent of babies are now breastfed, up from 74 percent in 2008.
Amy Conner of New Columbia, thinks — in a way — those numbers show that breastfeeding is making a “comeback” of sorts.
“I’m not sure if it really faded away, but I feel like it’s a bigger thing now than it has been,” said Conner.
Conner and her husband, Brent, are parents to a son, Austin, who will turn two in October.
Unlike Zeigler, Conner said she wasn’t sold on the idea of breastfeeding from the start — it took a lot of research before she felt comfortable making the choice.
“As a first-time mom, I felt overwhelmed to begin with,” she explained. “I did have a very strong feeling that I wanted to breastfeed and that was my big goal. So I did do a lot of research — it was probably overkill — but I want the facts before I do something.”
She admitted she was nervous to breastfeed due to a perceived lack of support from family and friends.
“There was no pressure on me for breastfeeding … in fact it was the opposite for me,” she said. “Most of our family formula fed. My mom was the one who nursed the longest and that was for six weeks.”
Sometimes, she admitted, it was “really rough,” to hear comments made by others about her choice.
“When he was around six months old, people starting asking if I would be done with that soon,” she said.
Though the comments bothered her at first, she quickly learned to let other’s opinions roll off her back.
“Ultimately you just have to do what’s best for you and your child,” she said.
Experts recommend mothers should exclusively breastfeed babies until they’re six months old, but the CDC reports only one in four in Pennsylvania is meeting that standard. Mothers should continue to breastfeed children until their first birthday, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Conner has surpassed the average length of time a Pennsylvania mom should exclusively breastfeed, and said that while she is currently weaning Austin, she still breast feeds when she gets home from work and at bedtime — not because she needs to feed him, but because he seems to want that comforting “mom” time.
One of the main focuses of McHenry’s job is to help support mothers who are breastfeeding.
“I help them troubleshoot if they’re having issues and provide education regarding how breastfeeding works,” she said. “Here at Geisinger, we see our mothers inpatient and we also have an outpatient clinic for moms who deliver in the Geisinger system.”
While Zeigler’s decision to breastfeed her daughter came easy, McHenry said not every new mom feels the same way.
“I really feared I wouldn’t be able to do it, and that was working against me,” Conner said.
“Nurses just kept coming in to my room telling me to do this or that … so I was extremely overwhelmed at first. But as soon as we left the hospital and I was in my comfort place it became easier for me — I think he felt that I was comfortable.”
McHenry said she understands how new mothers can feel overwhelmed.
“It’s common for moms to have concerns,” she said. “Every mother is concerned — they wonder ‘How am I gonna take care of this little person?’”
That’s where she and the rest of the new mother’s support system comes into play, she said.
“It’s really important to have support from your partner and other loved ones in family, and friends who have had successful breastfeeding experiences,” she said. “Knowing about your community resources can help them tremendously as well because it makes it easier being able to reach out with questions and ask for help.”
Though Zeigler’s experience was unique in that she didn’t have any trouble getting Zoee to latch on from the beginning, she still utilizes her support system, consisting of her family and friends, now that she’s back to work. She chose to start pumping when Zoee was just two weeks old, she said, so that her husband could share in the feeding experience, and so when she did return to work or had to be away from Zoee, she would still reap the benefits of breast milk.
She continues to breastfeed in the evenings and plans to continue for at least the first year.
One feeding at a time
If you’re expecting a baby and aren’t sure whether or not breastfeeding is for you, McHenry advises just giving it a try.
“Take it one feeding at a time and see how it goes,” she said. “Have a conversation about your concerns and whittle down what you are really concerned about.”
One way to become more educated, she said, is to avail yourself of the resources made available by local hospitals.
“It’s important to educate yourself on how breastfeeding works by taking a class and taking advantage of maternity care services, just so you feel like you’re going into the experience having a knowledge base,” said McHenry. “It’s really important to know what they’re looking for and knowing who to reach out to if there is a concern.”
If you aren’t having a lot of luck with getting baby to latch on, or maybe you want to give your baby the benefit of breast milk but you can’t physically be with the baby as much as you’d like, Cummings said there is also the option of pumping and feeding your baby breast milk via a bottle.
“Moms choose to pump for various reasons — sometimes they want to go back to work, or they want to share the feedings with other family members, pumping gives mom the flexibility to do some things she can’t do if she is breastfeeding,” she explained. “And some moms just like it because they can tell how much the baby ate versus just nursing at the breast.”
It all comes down to what works for mom and baby, she said.
Jillian Best, a mom of two from Jersey Shore, said she chose to breastfeed because to her, it was just “normal.”
“It was just normal to me because I remember my mom breastfeeding my brother when I was younger,” she said. “I was about six when he was born. My aunt breastfed my cousins. So to me, breastfeeding was just normalized.”
Mom to Nathaniel, 4, and Jeremiah, just under one year, Best is currently tandem feeding her boys. She said she has no regrets and believes that the process has helped both her and her children in numerous ways.
“There are a lot of benefits for a breastfeeding mom,” she said. “For me, I quickly went back to my pre-pregnancy weight — it doesn’t work for everyone but did for me.”
Best also admitted that breastfeeding, for her, is just “easier” and “more convenient.”
“I never have to worry when I go out if I’ve packed enough formula, if I have clean bottles or if there is water readily available,” she said. “It’s also very easy to get them to go to sleep. When they’re hungry, it’s right there and it’s the perfect temperature.”
She also likes the fact that her body can help protect their little bodies from illness and help them recover quicker when sick.
“Since they’re immune systems aren’t fully developed, when they’re sick, my body is actually fighting their sickness,” she said. “I’m battling for them and helping them.”
Decide for you
Regardless of her choice, Best said she wants other moms to know that no matter what they choose to do, it’s OK.
“You decide what’s best for your baby, nobody else,” said Best. “Just understand it is an option and though it can take a while and it is something you both have to learn — the baby doesn’t come out knowing how to breastfeed.”
Remember, too, she said, each baby is different.
“You may have had it easy with one baby, but with baby No. 2 or 3, it may be harder,” she said.
Like McHenry, Best encourages new moms to just give breastfeeding a try and to remember that if you need help or have a problem, reach out.
“You will read so many horror stories, but don’t believe them,” said Best. “It is not a forgone conclusion that it is hard, but if there is pain, there is a problem. Talk to an international board lactation consultant — get plugged in with La Leche League, or doing a Facebook group like Milky Mommas.”
Most importantly, she added, you are not alone.
“Yes, it can be hard but there are resources,” she said. “And if you need to supplement with formula or you choose not to continue to breastfeed, it’s your choice. Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing, every little bit counts.”