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It's back-to-school time for many of us with children. Getting those kids off to a good start, however, begins long before locating that must-have backpack; it begins the day they are born.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the Centers for Disease Control all recommend that mothers provide exclusive breast milk to their babies for the first 6 months until foods are introduced, and continue to breastfeed up to a year or longer if mutually desired by mother and baby. Research has shown that breastfed babies have a reduced risk of developing certain conditions, such as ear infections, asthma, and Type 2 diabetes and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But why?

A mother's body is biologically designed to help nourish and strengthen her baby. The breast milk she produces includes hormones and antibodies that help to protect babies from illness.

Starting with colostrum—referred to as "liquid gold"—breast milk initially helps a baby's digestive system grow and function. What is perhaps most amazing is that breast milk changes to meet a baby's ongoing needs. It contains a perfect balance of the fats, sugars, and proteins needed to help a baby grow.

It's important to recognize that while breastfeeding is natural and a practice embraced for centuries, it's not always easy.

Fortunately, there are resources that can help mothers who want to breastfeed achieve that goal. Our medical community is supportive of new moms and their efforts to breastfeed and can provide much-needed advice and connections to local breastfeeding resources. Families in our community are also fortunate to have access to lactation specialists—medical professionals specially trained to help new moms gain the skills and confidence they need to breastfeed.

If you're pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, talk to your doctor beforehand about how to give your little one the best start possible.

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Karen Bowers and Chris Bartlett are part of the St. Vincent Healthcare Lactation Department. Bowers and Bartlett are International Board Certified Lactation Consultants. Both are registered nurses with a background in maternity and neonatal intensive care nursing. Learn more at svh.org.

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