by Dawn M. Kersula

Sometimes the best thing for a baby is a snuggle.

We carry our babies “under our hearts” for nine months, and the moment of birth is magic. But what must the baby think? Gone is the warm, wet, safe hugs of the womb, and here is a new place filled with light, loud noises, cold. How can we welcome that baby to our world?

Birthing Center nurses Aimee Creelman MSN, IBCLC and Gloria Baldwin RN, IBCLC (both certified lactation consultants) recently worked on a project at the BMH Birthing Center that helped answer that question. After research and planning, the goal was clear: babies need to go right into their mothers’ arms, and even closer – skin to skin with mom, belly to belly with her, for the first hour of life. The nurses were delighted to find that moms and babies thrived – and that nurses were very good at helping mom and baby enjoy this “new” activity! The amazing thing is that when human babies are so close to mom, they very often act like other newborn mammals…..they bob their heads, scoot around and find something good to eat that will make them fat and sassy.

Researchers in Scandinavia found a fascinating cluster of activities in awake, alert newborns that they term the Newborn Survival Sequence. Within minutes of birth the behaviors begin, with babies opening their eyes to gaze at mom, massaging the breast, sucking their own fists, and finally finding the breast and beginning to eat all on their own. The massaging of the breast brings a burst of oxytocin – “the love hormone” – in larger amounts than even during the most intense parts of labor, when oxytocin bursts help the uterus contract and bring the baby into the world.

In August we celebrate breastfeeding around the world, starting with World Breastfeeding Week August 1-7. Why celebrate? Breastfeeding became a lost art back in the 1950’s. By the time the ‘70s rolled around, formula companies had found a great market around the world, as mothers wanted to feed their babies the American way. Little did we know that poor science combined with great marketing would contribute to the death of babies around the world, from starvation or from diarrhea. On August 1, 1990, WHO/UNICEF came out boldly against this culture of greed, asking countries around the world to support breastfeeding and ban direct marketing of formula and bottles to families.

The more we study breastfeeding, the more we realize that our babies are made to be loved and snuggled. The intense mother-baby bond that human beings are born to enjoy leads to happy parenting for mom and dad, with a delightful, healthy, interactive and attractive baby. Moms are made to be healthy – with strong bones, a natural weight loss, and healthy, non-cancerous breasts through their childbearing years. All because of breastfeeding!

Breastfeeding helps immunizations to “take” well, too. That means babies not only receive the natural immunities that their mothers easily give them through their milk, but human milk provides probiotics for healthy guts, essential fatty acids for brain growth and healthy skin, and that very first snuggle with mom provides a very strange gift: baby is colonized with mom’s bacteria, yeast and viruses – much better than the flora and fauna of the hospital or the home birth midwife.

We’ve learned so much about breastfeeding in the past 19 years. Since the Innocenti Declaration in 1990, we’ve discovered that all the pictures of breasts in the anatomy books were wrong! We knew that breastmilk was a supply/demand activity, but imagine the surprise of researchers when they found a hormone in milk (ILF) that would down-regulate the milk supply if milk stayed in the breast.

Meanwhile, psychologists discovered that breastfeeding moms were most likely to stay on an even keel after birth. Moms with sore nipples might suffer from postpartum depression, but formula feeding moms were at highest risk for depression. Researchers are continuing to study the hormone oxytocin, which may be that “hormone thing” we’ve looked for, for so many years, that makes a difference in the happiness of new moms.

Most babies in Brattleboro are breastfed. As more mothers return to work in our changing economy, and as young fathers get ready to be deployed, we as a community have the opportunity to help keep our extended family healthy. Is there a young family in your neighborhood? Why not bring over a pizza, or offer to do a load of laundry. Let mom and dad know that the very best thing they can do – for themselves, for the community, for the world – is to have a little snuggle. Think globally, act locally!

Dawn M. Kersula MA, RN, FACCE, IBCLC is the Perinatal Specialist at The Birthing Center at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. She also presents breastfeeding seminars nationwide for PESI Healthcare, Inc. and is the president of the Vermont Lactation Consultants Association.