To breastfeed or not to breastfeed is one of the most hotly contested issues between mothers and a very personal choice. However, numerous experts and years of research say that if mothers are able to breastfeed, it has a long list of health, psychological financial and even environmental benefits.
Although baby formulas have come a long way, there is no substitute for breast milk as an amazing source of nutrients for your baby that adjusts to every stage of your baby’s life. The World Health Organization (WHO) advocates breastfeeding exclusively for six months and continuing for at least two years while introducing other age-appropriate foods as your baby develops. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends six months of exclusively breastfeeding (no water, formula or other food or drink), then starting around six months breastfeeding in tandem with other foods for through the first year, and to keep breastfeeding as long as the mother and baby can afterward. (4)
Breast Milk Defends Your Baby Against Illness
While you are breastfeeding, especially if you breastfeed for six months to a year or longer, chances are you’ll catch a cold or flu during that time. You might be worried that you’ll pass your illness on to your child through breastfeeding, but actually in most cases, your doctor will advocate continuing to breastfeed while you are ill. This is not only because sudden weaning can be upsetting, but because your baby benefits from the antibodies you are passing on, and in many instances either won’t get sick, or will only contract a mild form. Your antibodies will also reduce your child’s risk of developing ear infections, stomach viruses, pneumonia, urinary-tract infections, or certain types of spinal meningitis.
If you have a family history of food allergies or eczema, breastfeeding can decrease the risk of developing both. Human milk, unlike cow’s milk or soy milk, contains human milk proteins. Cow and soy milk, which doesn’t integrate with your baby’s system as well as human milk, can actually cause an allergic response or be harder to digest.
Breast Milk Aids Brain Development
Breast milk has been linked to facilitating higher brain development due to the fatty acids in it. Studies show that scores on IQ tests and other cognitive assessments were higher for children who were breastfed than for children who received formula, outside of socioeconomic factors and the mother’s intelligence measurement.
“In a study of more than 17,000 infants followed from birth to 6 1/2 years, researchers concluded from IQ scores and other intelligence tests that prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding significantly improves cognitive development.
Breastfeeding is no guarantee that your child will be a genius, but experts agree that breast milk gives children the best chance for healthy growth in infancy and early childhood when the brain is developing rapidly.
Breastfeeding Can Lessen Obesity Rates
One of the reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics promotes breastfeeding is to decrease your child’s chances of becoming overweight or obese. The American Journal of Epidemiology published 17 studies that reported that breastfeeding reduces this risk. Again, the length of exclusive breastfeeding correlates with the lower rate of obesity, so the longer, the better.
Experts believe that breastfeeding counters excessive weight gain later in life, because:
- Breastfed babies learn to eat until they are full, which builds healthier eating habits at an early age.
- Breast milk has less insulin in it than formula. (Insulin activates the generation of fat.)
- Breastfeeding gives babies more of a hormone called leptin, which researchers think helps regulate appetite and fat.
- When measured against breastfed babies, formula-fed infants gain weight faster in the first few weeks. This is linked with later obesity. (1)
Breastfeeding Comforts Your Baby
Your baby is happy in your dark, quiet womb for nine months. At birth, he or she emerges into a bright, loud world and needs the comfort of your closeness. By holding your baby and breastfeeding, you are reassuring him or her and developing an important bond. From this, your baby begins to realize that he or she is protected, loved and cared for. Emotional well-being is as important as the protein and antibodies your baby is getting through breastfeeding. Experts believe that infants learn better with a close emotional attachment to an adult. Breastfeeding is the first step to building a close relationship between you and your baby. (4)
Breastfeeding is Good for Moms
Breastfeeding has lots of benefits for mothers, too. When you breastfeed, your body produces a hormone called prolactin, which makes you feel peaceful, helping you relax and concentrate on your baby, along with oxytocin, which makes you feel more love and affection. These happy feelings help mothers enjoy breastfeeding, perhaps do it longer and breastfeed subsequent children. Other potential benefits include:
- Losing weight
- Combating postpartum depression
- Delaying subsequent pregnancies
- Lowering risk of developing diabetes
- Improving heart health
- Mitigating cancer risk
The hormone Oxtocin helps your uterus contract back to its pre-pregnancy size more quickly and helps stem postpartum bleeding. In addition to helping your baby defend against many illnesses, breastfeeding is also linked to reduced rates of illnesses later in life for mothers, too. Mothers who breastfeed are less likely to have ovarian or breast cancer, and some studies report that breastfeeding is linked to an increase in bone density, warding against osteoporosis and fractures later in life (although this proof isn’t conclusive).
Breastfeeding is More Convenient
Infants need to eat often and you’ll soon notice that not having to make a bottle each time your child is hungry is a time-saver, especially in the middle of the night. You can breastfeed almost anywhere and have to pack much less gear without bottles, formula, nipples and a cooler and worry about sterilization.
Breastfeeding is Better for Your Budget
Breastfeeding, of course, saves you money. Breastfeeding is free, while formula can cost upwards of three dollars a day, and sometimes close to $10, depending on the type of formula and how much your baby eats. The combination of formula and bottle-feeding supplies can cost more than $1,500 a year.
On a larger scale, since breastfeeding protects infants from illness (requiring fewer doctor visits, prescriptions and hospitalizations), millions of dollars are saved in healthcare costs. “In one study, a group of formula-fed infants had $68,000 in health care costs in a six-month period, while an equal number of nursing babies had only $4,000 of similar expenses.” (5)
Breastfeeding is Better for the Environment
Without the clutter of bottles, nipples and formula cans mean less is going into our landfills. Breast milk appears when you need it, increases as your child grows and needs more to eat, and dries up after weaning. No packaging, no waste.
Breastfeeding is no guarantee that your child will be brilliant and illness-free and you will never get cancer or diabetes, but an overwhelming number of experts agree that breastfeeding gives infants the best nutrients possible and facilitates the mother-child emotional bond, which is the main reason some women give for breastfeeding, despite all its other benefits.
With all these benefits, you would think breastfeeding is the obvious choice and it must be easy. Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Breastfeeding can be extremely difficult, so ensure you have a support system cheering you on and helping you through the ups and downs. SmartMom is a community of 160,000 moms and growing. We have breastfeeding moms, formula feeding moms, pumping moms and everything in between. Download the SmartMom app to ask questions, lend advice, and get support 24-7 – even during those 4am feedings!
The information in this article came from the following sources:
- BabyCenter, How Breastfeeding Benefits You and Your Baby
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Childhood Obesity Fact
- org, Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom
- Meek M.D., Joan Younger; American Academy Of Pediatrics; Sherill Tippins. The American Academy of Pediatrics New Mother’s Guide to Breastfeeding. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 2011.
- The Natural Resources Defense Council, Benefits of Breastfeeding
- Scientific American, How Breastfeeding Benefits Mothers’ Health
- WebMD, Breastfeeding Overview
- The Office of Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Women’sHealth.gov, Why Breastfeeding is Important