NOTHING beats breast milk. Someeven call it “liquid gold.” According to theUnited Nations Children’s Fund(UNICEF), “The breast-feeding infant isthe reference or normative model againstwhich all alternative methods must bemeasured.” The organization’s expertsstate unequivocally that breast milk isuniquely superior for infant feeding and isspecies-specific.The primary benefit of mother’s milk isnutritional. It contains at least 100 ingredientsnot found in formula. It is sterile, andalmost no babies are allergic to it. Humanmilk contains just the right amount of fattyacids, lactose, water, vitamins, mineralsand amino acids for easy digestion, braindevelopment and growth of human babies.Milk from Mama transfers her antibodiesto the baby. Approximately 80% of thecells in breast milk are macrophages, cellsthat kill bacteria, fungi and viruses.Nursing promotes good jaw developmentand the growth of straight, healthy teeth.According to the American Academy ofPediatrics (AAP), breast-fed infants havefewer hospital admissions, ear infections,digestive problems, allergies and rashesthan formula-fed babies. Breast-feedingalso confers protection against a host ofmore serious diseases including pneumonia,bronchitis, staphylococcus infection,bacterial meningitis, hepatitis, insulin-dependentdiabetes and ulcerative colitis.THE few conditions that precludebreast-feeding include active, untreatedtuberculosis, herpes infection, hepatitis,beta streptococcus infection, drug addictionand, in the opinion of many doctors,HIV/ AIDS infection. Some sources, however,state that human milk does not transferHIV. In fact, a November 2004 UNICEFreport supports exclusive breast-feeding(EBF) in HIV-epidemic countries. Inaddition to its high nutritional value, breastmilk does not expose infants to the parasiticorganisms that can cause life-threateningdiarrhea.“In this environment, EBF is a life-savingchoice for children. Every day wedelay implementing programs to supportEBF, more than 3,500 children die needlessly,and HIV is allowed to spread silentlyamong the most vulnerable,” saysMiriam Labbock, Chief of Nutrition andMaternal/Infant Health Division at the U.S.Agency for International Development(USAID) and a professor at the JohnsHopkins School of Public Health.WHAT’S good for the little ones isalso good for their mothers, in several differentways. Breast-feeding is much moreeconomical than buying bottles and formula,and easier than sterilizing bottles andheating formula every two hours. By burningextra calories, it helps a woman losethe weight she gained eating for two.AAP data show that mothers whobreast-feed experience less postpartumbleeding, and higher oxytocin levels causethe uterus to return to normal, pre-pregnancysize more quickly. On the emotional andpsychological levels, nursing can be anineffably beautiful bonding experience thatoffsets some of the other difficulties anddemands of motherhood.WENDI Patrick, a resident of CiudadColón, southwest of San José, said she wasnot at all sure about breast-feeding beforeher son was born, even though she knewabout its nutritional and immunologicalbenefits. She decided to give it a try for sixmonths. After six months had passed, shedecided to continue for at least year.Now that her son is almost a year old,she says, “I’m thinking that as long as heand I both want to do it, I will continue.The closeness we have is something Inever could have imagined before he wasborn. And breast-feeding is not just ameans of getting nutrition into him. Hewants to nurse when he’s not feeling well,or gets a bump, or he’s tired, and that’s fineby me. In fact, the best time of day is whenwe’re both tired and I nurse him to sleep,and fall asleep myself in the process.”THE benefits of breast-feeding continuethroughout a woman’s life. According tothe AAP, women who have nursed have ahigher rate of bone remineralization thanmothers who haven’t. This leads to fewerpost-menopausal hip fractures and lowersthe rate of ovarian cancer and postmenopausalbreast cancer. AAP data alsoshow that diabetic women who have nursedneed less insulin, and that breast-feedingwomen have more high-density lipoprotein(HDL) cholesterol – the good kind – and,possibly, lower risk of coronary disease.If breast-feeding offers so many advantagesto both mother and baby, why do sofew women do it?“Women need support, good informationand resources,” says Nancy Sábean,pioneer of La Leche League in Costa Rica.Originally from Boston, Massachusetts,Sábean introduced the program to the country25 years ago, and is still active in it.Founded in 1956 in the United States,La Leche League was named after aSpanish settlers’ shrine to Nuestra Señorade La Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady ofHappy Delivery and Plentiful Milk),according to the organization’s Web site,www.lalecheleague.org. The internationalorganization gives information and encouragement,mainly through personal help andpublications, to mothers who want tobreast-feed their babies.La Leche League International maintainsthe largest database in the world onbreast-feeding and related topics. The organizationis active in 65 countries and territories,and reaches more than 200,000mothers monthly through its network ofmore than 6,700 certified, volunteer groupleaders.“La Leche League leaders do not teachclasses,” Sábean explains. “We merelyfacilitate a woman’s ability to do what shealready knows how to do.”COSTA Rica’s Public Law 7430 promotesbreast-feeding and delineates therights of working and lactating women; inCosta Rica, women are entitled by law to16 weeks of paid maternity leave and onehour per day for breast-feeding or expressingmilk until the baby is one year old.Breast pumps are available through LaLeche League and at many pharmacies,and range in price from ¢3,000-6,000 ($6-13) for a manual pump to ¢16,700-23,000($35-49) for an electric one.Five certified La Leche League groupleaders are currently active in the country:Greta McAlpin (592-0726), MariameliaMontero (271-1686), Maria Weinrich(761-1858), Waleska Porras (441-0148)and Nancy Sábean (228-0941).