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The Dangers of Inadequate Breastfeeding

As a postpartum nurse, I have witnessed the dangers of inadequate breastfeeding firsthand.


Breastfeeding is supposed to be the most natural thing a mother can do for her baby. It is as easy as just placing a baby in the bosom and the baby latches on, right?

That is not always the case. Several factors can affect breastfeeding, including:

  • breastmilk supply
  • breast morphology
  • latch
  • newborn alertness
  • mother’s nutrition

As a postpartum nurse, I have witnessed the dangers of inadequate breastfeeding when any of these factors are ignored. Hypernatremic dehydration and jaundice are real dangers of inadequate breastfeeding. When a newborn does not obtain any or enough food (whether breastmilk or formula), they deplete whatever resources are left since the separation from the placenta. The newborn starts to lose more calories than it is gaining, and thus, starts dehydrating.

These dangers have harsh consequences. Dehydration may lead to serious complications:

  • cerebral edema (swelling of brain tissue)
  • seizures
  • intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding within the skull)
  • disseminated intravascular coagulation (a life-threatening condition where there is excessive clotting or bleeding throughout the body)
  • kidney failure
  • permanent brain injury, and even death [1]

Also, if the newborn is not well hydrated, they will not pass meconium or stool. Meconium is a sterile product of debris build-up in the intestines. The newborn excretes bilirubin through both meconium and stool so if this does not occur, the bilirubin level starts to rise and can lead to jaundice (yellowing of the skin). Severe jaundice can cause bilirubin to pass into the brain (acute bilirubin encephalopathy) and permanent brain damage (kernicterus).

None of these complications are solely theoretical but have already occurred. Current studies have confirmed this: exclusively breastfed babies are more likely to become severely jaundiced than formula-fed babies. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discovered increased cases of kernicterus and warned that breastfeeding is a significant risk factor for the development of severe jaundice [2].

Several current studies indicated that the incidence of breastfeeding associated hypernatremic dehydration in healthy term newborns is increasing [3, 4]. In one study, one out of 66 healthy exclusively breastfed term newborns developed hypernatremic dehydration [5].

So what are the causes of these dangers?

The major causes are an inadequate latch and low breastmilk supply.

  • Regarding the former, if the newborn does not have a good latch, each feeding will be suboptimal.
  • As for low breastmilk supply, if there isn’t a sufficient amount of breastmilk to adequately hydrate and nourish the newborn, they are at risk for dehydration and jaundice.

In assessing the exclusively breastfed newborn for proper nutrition, the daily wet and soiled diapers are counted. As a general rule, the newborn should have at least one wet diaper and one soiled diaper within the first 24 hours of life, and at least two wet and two soiled diapers the following day.

I am concerned about the validity of the first wet diaper in reflecting the newborn’s current hydration status. Some newborns have a wet diaper within 4-6 hours of delivery. My concern is whether the void resulted from hydration from breastfeeding or hydration via placenta in utero prior to delivery. This has to be carefully considered, because if a newborn voids as a result of hydration prior to delivery and is not obtaining adequate hydration from breastfeeding, a whole day has gone by without notice. Imagine how an adult would feel if they do not eat for a whole day. Then consider what it would be like for a newborn, which is still so fragile.

Another matter of concern is the notion that 5-7 ml of colostrum is a sufficient feeding for every newborn because that is the capacity of their stomachs. It is hard to believe that newborns with weights ranging from 2500-4000 grams would have the same stomach capacity.

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A study by Naveed et al discovered that the larger the newborn, the greater the stomach capacity [6]. They found that newborns that weighed 2500 g had at least 18 ml stomach capacity.

Moreover, different metabolic rates, caloric needs, and the frequency of feedings can affect the feeding volumes of newborns [7]. I have seen a newborn only a few hours old take down 20 ml of formula without difficulty and would have taken more if I let her. When I spoke to a neonatal nurse practitioner about this newborn, she told me of another newborn who took 30 ml of formula without difficulty, which is why she and her colleagues advise letting the newborn eat as desired. Newborns have different stomach capacities so some will eat more than others and some will eat less. A rule of thumb will not work for all newborns.

There is a myth circulating that malnourished mothers can provide nourishing breastmilk (both colostrum and mature milk). I would like every mother to contemplate how this is possible. The so-called malnourished mothers in developing countries may not appear healthy or nourished but these mothers have been preparing to breastfeed since pregnancy and they eat certain foods to assure their colostrum and mature milk is nutritious. I come from a developing country and a real malnourished mother has little or no breastmilk for her newborn.

When I see new mothers drinking coffee and eating only a bagel for the whole day while breastfeeding nonstop and they think they are nourishing their newborn, I think someone should step in and tell them the truth, not perpetuate a myth.

A pediatrician once told me that breastmilk sucks all the nutrients from my body for my baby. But what if the mother’s body does not have sufficient nutrients; then what?

With all the breastfeeding initiatives, I fear some mothers breastfeed at the expense of the newborn’s health. What is most important is the newborn’s health. Indeed, breastfeeding initiatives are for the newborn’s health, citing all the research that breastmilk is best for the newborn.

But are we (healthcare providers, as well as mothers) losing sight of the fact that the newborn needs adequate nutrition for good health? Ultimately, the goal is a healthy newborn. This should always be a priority and considered in all that is done for the newborn.

Does being exclusively breastfed and in an isolette under phototherapy lights for days as a result of jaundice outweigh being both breastfed and formula-fed and not being separated from the mother? As a postpartum nurse, I feel torn between my care for the newborn and the mother when I see a screaming, close-to-dehydrated newborn, who is exclusively breastfed. I want to support the mother’s choice to exclusively breastfeed, but I feel compelled by the newborn’s hunger cry.

One might think I am against breastfeeding, but I am not.

I am a mother and I breastfed my children. I am all for breastfeeding when the mother has adequate milk supply and the newborn latches onto her breast well and feeds well at least 8 times a day.

My questions are how do we achieve this for all mothers? And can we? The truth is, not every woman can breastfeed. No one wants to say it but there, I said it.

Breastfeeding starts before birth. Eating a healthy balanced diet and staying well-hydrated are paramount to breastfeeding. Expectant mothers must be educated about breastfeeding including its challenges and potential dangers, not to scare them but to prepare them and develop solutions before the problems occur. Parents need to understand the gravity of the situation and be active participants in the care of their newborn. Here are a few strategies for new mothers to keep in mind:

· Breastfeed within an hour of delivery to make it the first experience the newborn has of feeding.

· Go to breastfeeding class during your hospital stay so a lactation consultant can observe you breastfeed your newborn. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The lactation consultant will detect any problems and help you then and there. Lactation consultants are great resources, so utilize them!

· Breastfeed your newborn 8–12 times daily for at least 20–30 minutes for the first several days. I have encountered mothers who breastfeed their newborn for 5–10 minutes and think it is a sufficient feeding. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let the newborn breastfeed for as long as they want, but make sure it is at least 20 – 30 minutes for each feeding.

· Know your newborn’s daily weight during your hospital stay. Weight loss > 7% of birth weight signifies breastfeeding problems and requires prompt evaluation according to AAP guidelines.

· Have a newborn follow-up appointment within 1–2 days of hospital discharge. The AAP recommends that all exclusively breastfed newborns be evaluated by a pediatrician at 3–5 days of age to examine for adequate fluid intake, any evidence of jaundice or dehydration, to identify any breastfeeding problems, and to provide additional support and/or resources to parents as needed.

· Discuss Vitamin D supplementation for your newborn with your pediatrician. Vitamin D supplementation of 400 IU daily is recommended for all exclusively breastfed newborns beginning at hospital discharge [8].

Lastly, I would like to ask all my readers to ponder this question: Is breastfeeding with formula supplementation so wrong?

What is imperative is that the newborn is nourished. Dehydrated and many jaundiced newborns are fed formula as a result of inadequate breastfeeding. Why wait until the newborns are sick before supplementing when there are signs of inadequate breastfeeding?

Some experts talk of nipple confusion, but every day I see newborns who exclusively breastfeed well all day even though they take formula at night. I did both and my children still preferred my breast. As long as the mother offers her breast first for each feeding before she supplements, there is no such thing as nipple confusion.

My main point here is supplementing with formula should not be so stigmatized that mothers whose newborns need supplementation feel they have failed as mothers. I have seen mothers cry for choosing to supplement even though it was the right decision because of this.

This perception of failure could contribute to postpartum depression. A mother should never feel she made a wrong choice or failed for assuring her newborn is nourished.

Amidst the push for all mothers to breastfeed, let’s not forget the newborn and its most basic need: adequate nutrition.


1. Pelleboer, R., Bontemps, S., Verkerk, P., Van Dommelen, P., Pereira, R., & Van Wouwe, J. (2009). A nationwide study on hospital admissions due to dehydration in exclusively breastfed infants in the Netherlands: Its incidence, clinical characteristics, treatment and outcome. Acta Paediatrica, 98, 107.

2. Chen, Y., Chen, W., & Chen, C. (2011). Risk factors for hyperbilirubinemia in breastfed term neonates. European Journal of Pediatrics, 171, 167-171.

3. Moritg, ML., Manole, MD., Bugen, DL., & Ayus, JC. (2005). Breastfeeding – associated hypernatremia: Are we missing the diagnosis! Pediatrics, 116, e343-e347.

4. Boensch, M., Oberthuer, A., Eifinger, F., & Roth, B. (2011). Life-threatening hypernatremic dehydration in a 7-week-old exclusively breastfed infant as a cause of a decline in breastmilk volume and parental language barriers in a North African family. Klinische Padiatrie, 223, 40-2.

5. Konetzny, G., Bucher, H., & Arlettaz, R. (2009). Prevention of hypernatraemic dehydration in breastfed newborn infants by daily weighing. European Journal of Pediatrics, 168, 815-8.

6. Naveed, M., Manjunath, C., & Sreenivas, V. (1992). An autopsy study of relationship between perinatal stomach capacity and birth weight. Indian Journal of Gastroenterology, 11, 156-158.

7. Spangler, A., Randenberg, A., Brenner, M., & Howett, M. (2008). Belly models as teaching tools: What is their utility? Journal of Human Lactation, 24, 199.

8. Schlanler, R., & Potak, D. (2013). Initiation of breastfeeding. UpToDate.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Annalise Talons (author) on September 15, 2018:

Proper breastfeeding gives nutrients for the development of the brain e.g DHA.

David on September 10, 2018:

Dose proper breastfeeding contribute to the advancement of brain and mentality? said by a lot of people

Dr Hamda on August 24, 2018:

That is very good

synthicate on February 11, 2016:

this is so good.has helped me learn more about breastfeeding and the outcome in its inadequacy to a newborn .thanks

jenny tamayo on September 14, 2015:

Wow! This is something to be read. I felt i had done something good for my baby. MY breastmilk came after a week though i let my child latch on me but he cries a lot... when i was still at the hospital, my baby latch on a different mother since i had none yet and i undergo CS operation... it was a challenge for me.. I believed i had post partum depression because i wanted to do exclusive breastfeeding but the situation did not allow me at all. After a week, my baby would latch on me already for about 10-20 min. Then, he would fell asleep and after 20 minutes would cry again and the cycle goes on and on... my mom would tell me to fm him since he's not getting enough milk from me anymore while my husband would tell me to take it easy since i just went an operation... until now i would still offer my breast to my baby but he refuses to latch on me... i have come into a decision that my priority is my child's health.

Annalise Talons (author) on February 20, 2015:

Thank you, Zizi. I felt the urge to write this a long time ago and I'm glad that you understand where I am coming from.

Zizi on February 16, 2015:

I've shared this with all my friends who are with child. I've seen too many moms breastfeeding at the expense of the infant's health. You said what I've been saying but much more eloquently. Thank you.

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