The Benefits of Breastfeeding

By Andrea Newell

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 nothing but breastfeeding (no water, formula or other food or drink) for the first six months, then breastfeeding along with other foods for another six months, and to keep breastfeeding as long as the mother and baby can afterward. (4)

Breast Milk Changes As Your Baby Grows

By the time your baby is born, your body knows to start producing colostrum, a thick, yellowish substance that some call “liquid gold” due its rich protein content. Colostrum supplies your baby with special nutrients that he or she needs during the first few days of life to build a strong foundation for future good health and guard against infections. The primary immune element responsible for guarding your child against illness is secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA) which is found in large amounts in colostrum. Less of it is found in mature breast milk. It defends your baby against infection by generating a protective coating on the mucous membranes of the intestines, nose and throat. (1)

If your baby comes early, your body knows it, and your colostrum contains even more protein and needed fats that benefit premature babies. Colostrum is thicker than more mature breast milk because of its increased protein content. It is also lower in sugar and has a lot less fat. (4) “Colostrum helps a newborn’s digestive tract develop and prepare itself to digest breast milk.” (7)

After several days (two to five), your milk will begin to change, becoming thinner and lighter in color and will increase in volume as your baby needs more to eat, a period referred to as breast milk “coming in.” This is the onset of “transitional milk,” which your body produces after colostrum, up to ten to fourteen days after birth. After about two weeks, transitional milk becomes mature milk, which is thinner and described as watery and sometimes bluish. These changes in breast milk track along with your baby’s development and growth and provide essential proteins and nutrients at each stage. Your breast milk supply will increase and wane as your child’s needs do. (4)

Breast Milk Defends Your Baby Against Illness

Scientists and doctors can’t completely explain how breast milk adapts to your infant’s needs, but they do know that breast milk guards your child against illness better than formula. “Human milk provides virtually all the protein, sugar and fat your baby needs to be healthy, and it also contains many substances that benefit your baby’s immune system, including antibodies, immune factors, enzymes and white blood cells.” (4) The key seems to be exclusive breastfeeding (no water, formula or other food) for six months or more.

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 (a tailored form of IgA that wards off the specific illness) 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 (IgA comes into play here, as well). 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.

There are other illnesses that studies have shown have lower numbers in breastfed children, both during breastfeeding and later in life, including, dental cavities, childhood acute leukemia and other cancers, type 1 and 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), obesity later in life, and, in girls, breast cancer. A study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reported that breastfed children have a 20 percent lower risk of dying between 28 days and a year than children on formula. The longer children were breastfed, the lower the risk. (1)

Health Risks for Formula-Fed Vs. Breastfed Babies

A formula-fed baby has _____________ the chance of contracting _______________ as a breastfed baby does during the time that they are breastfeeding.

2 to 7 times                            allergies, eczema

3 times                                   ear infections

3 times                                   gastroenteritis

3.8 times                                meningitis

2.6 to 5.5 times                      urinary-tract infections

2.4 times                                diabetes, type 1

2 times                                   Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

1.7 to 5 times                         pneumonia/lower-respiratory-tract infection

1.5 to 1.9 times                      inflammatory bowel disease

1 to 6.7 times                         Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Adapted from: American Family Physician, April 1, 2000, Vol. 61, No. 7. Reprinted in 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. 2011.

Breast Milk Aids Brain Development

Breast milk has also 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.

Another study of almost 4,000 children showed that babies who were breastfed had significantly higher scores on a vocabulary test at 5 years of age than children who were not breastfed. And the scores were higher the longer they had been nursed.” (1)

Premature babies with very low birth weight who were given breast milk soon after birth showed improved mental development scores at 18 months, versus premature infants that were given formula. Retesting at 30 months showed that the high scores persisted, and the breastfed babies had a lower rate of repeat hospitalization for respiratory issues.

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

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that childhood obesity has “more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.” (2)

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.

Oxtocin also 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).

Lose weight

One huge benefit of breastfeeding is that can help mothers lose pregnancy weight, where formula feeding cannot. Breastfeeding depletes the fat cells stored in your body from pregnancy. When you breastfeed, your body uses the calories that you consume, as well as these fat cells, to produce milk. This occurs even when you increase your diet to include 300-500 more calories a day (the amount recommended during breastfeeding to maintain a good energy level and milk production). Most women lose an initial fifteen pounds right after birth, and then one to two pounds a month for about six months, and usually more slowly after that. Many women find that it takes the same amount of time after birth to lose the weight as the length of their pregnancy took to gain it.

Combat postpartum depression

After analyzing more than 9,000 study abstracts, the National Institutes of Health determined that women had a higher risk of postpartum depression if they did not breastfeed or stopped breastfeeding early (before the recommended six months). When oxytocin is released during breastfeeding, it not only inspires a peaceful, content feeling, it wards off feelings of depression.

“One study found that women who had high amounts of oxytocin in their system (50 percent of breastfeeding moms as opposed to 8 percent of bottle-feeding moms) had lower blood pressure after being asked to talk about a stressful personal problem.” (1)

Delay subsequent pregnancies

Exclusive breastfeeding can prevent the return of your menstrual period, especially during the first six months, which can create a needed delay between children. The most effective period of this “natural” birth control, is the first six weeks (although it is not 100 percent foolproof). After that, your period might not return right away, but the only guarantee of preventing subsequent pregnancies is employing a form of birth control. After six weeks of breastfeeding, your milk supply will be stable, and your doctor can recommend a method that is safe and doesn’t interfere with your milk production. There are several choices available.

Lower risk of developing diabetes

Mothers can be at greater risk for diabetes due to the extra fat stored on the body from pregnancy, combined with the fact that pregnancy can reduce glucose tolerance and increase insulin resistance, which can contribute to gestational diabetes. However, studies are suggesting that breastfeeding can counteract these imbalances, showing that the longer a woman had breastfed, cumulatively, during her childbearing years, the less likely she was to develop type 2 diabetes, regardless of BMI, which is a possible risk factor. Women with gestational diabetes are considered to be at higher risk of developing diabetes after giving birth, but recent studies report that this risk is much less for women who breastfeed for more than nine months. (6)

Better heart health

A study in 2009 showed that women who breastfed longer were at less risk for developing cardiovascular disease (even after adjusting for sociodemographic and lifestyle factors, family history and BMI). Breastfeeding for more than 12 months resulted in women having a 10 percent less chance of developing it than women who did not breastfeed. Other complications seemed to be more prevalent in women who did not breastfeed, like aortic calcification and high blood pressure. The exact medical reason isn’t clear, but researchers think that it might be related to higher cholesterol levels during pregnancy that are reduced faster by breastfeeding, and the higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good cholestrol”) found in breastfeeding mothers. (6)

Studies are still ongoing, and some show that as women age, the breastfeeding defenses might grow thin, as the risk numbers for cardiovascular disease for women in their 70s were about the same regardless of the amount of time they breastfed.

Mitigating cancer risk

Much has been written about the reduced risk for breast and ovarian cancer if you breastfeed. Scientific American actually says that some studies conclude that “not nursing puts some women at higher risk.”

A 2010 paper reported that for every 12 months a woman spent breastfeeding, the risk that she would develop breast cancer dropped 4.3 percent. Additionally, breastfeeding could better a woman’s chances of not getting breast cancer even if there was a family history of it. (6)

“Whereas the potent drug Tamoxifen can reduce risk for those with a mother or sister who had breast cancer by about half, ‘moms who had breastfed at all had about 60 percent less risk,’ (paper author) Alison Stuebe (an assistant professor in the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill) says. ‘That’s a pretty significant statistic.’” (6)

The medical links aren’t always entirely clear, but experts think that the some of the reasons for the lower rate of breast and ovarian cancer might be due to structural changes in breast tissue as a result of breastfeeding, and that lactation reduces the amount of estrogen your body generates. Since breast and ovarian cancer can be exacerbated by estrogen, suppression might lower the risk. (1)

Ovarian cancer risks can also be associated with breastfeeding. Mothers that didn’t breastfeed (not women who had never had children, but women who went through the birth process and didn’t breastfeed afterward) had 1.5 times more risk of developing ovarian cancer compared with breastfeeding mothers, although another study reported that the defense was most effective if the women had breastfed the last child they gave birth to. Another theory is that mastitis (infections of the milk ducts) can be beneficial, creating antibodies that seem to ward off ovarian cancer. 

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, when 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)

The Office on Women’s Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, estimates that the United States would save $2.2 billion each year if more babies were breastfed, (8) where Scientific American puts that number at $13 billion, if 90 percent of women breastfed their babies exclusively for the first six months. (6) At the same time, parents of breastfed babies miss less work to care for sick children than parents of formula-fed infants. This translates into lower employer medical costs, as well.

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.

Breast Milk is Always Available and Contaminant-Free

In most parts of the U.S., we enjoy clean drinking water, electricity and a temperature-controlled place to sleep and shelter our children, although with the rising number of homeless, food-insecure homes and minimum wage workers struggling to pay their bills, this is far from a certainty for many. In many other parts of the world, it is a way of life. For breastfed infants, nursing protects them from the risks of an unclean water supply. Unexpressed breast milk doesn’t need to be kept refrigerated, it is always at the right temperature during feeding, and it helps regulate your child’s body temperature (helping to keep it from dropping too low in chilly weather). (8)

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.

The information in this article came from the following sources:

  1. BabyCenter, How Breastfeeding Benefits You and Your Baby
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Childhood Obesity Fact
  3. org, Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom
  4. 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.
  5. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Benefits of Breastfeeding
  6. Scientific American, How Breastfeeding Benefits Mothers’ Health
  7. WebMD, Breastfeeding Overview
  8. The Office of Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Women’sHealth.gov, Why Breastfeeding is Important