The Benefits of Breastfeeding

The Benefits of Breastfeeding

Words by Paige Townley 

For Allison Black, M.D., the journey to improving neonatal care is both a professional mission and a personal passion. As an associate professor in the Division of Neonatology and the associate medical director for the NICU at Children’s of Alabama, Dr. Black has dedicated her career to enhancing the health and well-being of infants. Central to her work is advocating for the benefits of breastfeeding—a practice that offers myriad advantages to both mothers and their babies.

"Breast is best," a common slogan, encapsulates the multitude of benefits breastfeeding provides. As Dr. Black emphasizes, "A mother, when she makes human milk, provides the perfect nutrition, individualized for her baby." Breast milk not only promotes optimal growth and easier digestion but also bestows passive immunity. "If you are sick with a cold and you’re a mother who’s breastfeeding, your body is fighting that cold and producing antibodies," she explains. “Those pass through your breast milk to your infant and they are protected from getting that cold.”

For mothers, the benefits extend beyond nutrition. Breastfeeding helps normalize blood pressure, promotes uterine contractions, and facilitates a quicker return to a pre-pregnancy state. Moreover, the bonding experience is invaluable. Yet, breastfeeding isn't without its challenges. Common concerns among new mothers include worries about milk supply and the baby's intake. "We constantly reassure mothers by monitoring wet and dirty diapers and tracking weight gain, ensuring the baby gets exactly what they need,” she emphasizes.

Recognizing the unique challenges faced by preterm infants, Dr. Black spearheaded Project HOME (Home on Milk Every time). This initiative, part of the Children’s Hospital Neonatal Consortium involving 37 centers across North America, aims to boost human milk feeding rates in level IV NICUs—units housing the most critically ill infants. "Preterm babies, being so sick, gain the biggest benefit from having human milk feedings," Dr. Black notes.

The strategy behind Project HOME includes early parental education, involving lactation consultants, and achieving key milestones like kangaroo care—a term for the baby doing skin to skin being held with their mom—and early oral care with human milk. "One of the things we target is early parent education. Within 24 hours of admission, we try to have a frank conversation with parents about the importance of breast milk," says Dr. Black. 

Additionally, kangaroo care plays a crucial role. It not only stabilizes the baby’s vital signs but also promotes breast milk production and strengthens the mother-infant bond. "Just that first feeding, being at the breast, is a huge promoter of milk production and the bond between the mom and the baby,” she adds.

The project's impact has been significant. Since its inception in January 2023, there has been a notable increase in breastfeeding rates at discharge. More importantly, the entire care team, from nurses to nutritionists, has become more engaged and supportive. "Receiving the same message from everyone and having support from different areas makes a huge difference for these families," Dr. Black says. 

Through initiatives like Project HOME, Children’s of Alabama is not only improving the health outcomes of its tiniest patients but also supporting families in making informed, beneficial choices for their infants' care.