Women's Healthcare Topics

Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom and Baby

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

American Academy of Pediatrics Recommends that all Moms Exclusively Nurse

Breast milk is the best, most complete baby food. No man-made infant formula can beat the perfect combination of fat, proteins, carbohydrates, antibodies, and other nutrients available in human breast milk. What's truly amazing about breast milk is that it changes as your child grows in order to meet your little one's needs at different stages of life.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all women exclusively nurse their infants until they are six months old. Exclusive breastfeeding means that you should not introduce any solid foods or liquids (other than your breast milk) to your baby's diet for the first half year after birth.

Though breastfeeding is the best way to feed your baby, it's not always the easiest. Nursing takes time and patience. When you first start, try not to beat yourself up if breastfeeding doesn't come naturally. It is a learned skill that takes time to master.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to you to learn this skill. You can take a prenatal breastfeeding class, or you can consult a breastfeeding reference book. Many hospitals in the United States also have a lactation consultant on staff to help new mothers with any breastfeeding problems or questions.

Keep in mind that if you start your baby off with infant formula, you can't change your mind. It will not be possible to breastfeed.

Benefits of Breastfeeding for Baby

You may have heard that the breast is best. This is indeed true. Infant formula can't rival with the complete and unique nutritional components found in breast milk. The benefits of nursing go above and beyond what formula can provide.

1. Breast milk protects baby from common childhood illnesses. Colostrum, the early breast milk that your body makes during pregnancy and immediately after birth, is rich in nutrients and antibodies that protect your baby from infection and disease. A baby's immune system is still maturing, so he or she needs all the protection that he or she can get to fight off common diseases and infections.

Colostrum has high concentrations of an antibody called secretory immunoglobin A, which forms a protective covering on your little one's throat, nose, and intestines to protect the body from germs and infection.

It is impossible for infant formula manufacturers to synthetically replicate this antibody. A mother's body produces secretory immunoglobin A that is specially tailored to her individual baby. The antibody was created to respond to the viruses and bacteria that exist in the mother's body. As a result, the unique secretory immunoglobin A protects the baby from any germs that live in his or her unique environment.

Secretory immunoglobin A is one of the primary reasons that breastfed babies tend to be healthier and experience fewer illnesses than formula-fed infants. This antibody is highest in colostrum, but it is also present in mature breast milk.

Many studies have shown that babies who are nursed have a significantly lower rate of stomach viruses, meningitis, lower respiratory illnesses, and ear infections. When breastfed infants get sick with these illnesses, the cases tend to be milder and less severe than in bottle-fed babies. Exclusively breastfeeding for six months or more gives babies the most protection.

2. Breastfeeding reduces risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Though the cause of SIDS is not clearly understood, it is less common for babies on the breast to die from SIDS. Rates are higher in bottle fed infants. Scientists theorize that the omega-3 fatty acids present in breast milk are essential for myelin (the insulating covering around nerves that allows nerve impulses to travel quicker). This helps the nerves in the respiratory system develop better. In addition, breast milk is gentler on a baby's airways and it is more easily digested than formula. The antibodies in breast milk also help fight chest infections.

Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) tends to be less severe in babies who are breastfed. GER can cause babies to have episodes where they stop breathing.

Breastfed babies tend to wake up more often to eat, and while this may be exhausting for you, this may teach your infant to arouse him or herself from sleep when he or she needs to breathe.

3. Breastfeeding is associated with many long-term health benefits. Research studies have shown that breastfeeding's benefits don't stop in infancy. A breastfed child has a lower risk of childhood cancer (possibly due to the antibodies in breast milk), diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn's disease (breast milk is easier to digest than infant formula, which is usually made with cow's milk. It takes time for a baby's stomach to adjust to cow's milk). Allergies and asthma are also lower in breastfed infants.

4. Exclusive breastfeeding may improve cognitive development. Studies have indicated that breastfed children tend to have higher IQs and score better on intelligence tests.

5. Breastfed babies are at lower risk for childhood obesity.
Babies fed on the breast tend to gain weight slower than babies on the bottle. This may be due to breast milk containing more leptin (a hormone that regulates appetite) and less insulin (which aids in the creation of fat). In addition, babies nurse until they are no longer hungry. They turn away from the breast when they are full. This may lead to healthier eating habits as they age.

Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom

This section will discuss the benefits of breastfeeding for baby.

On top of the health benefits for baby, breastfeeding is also good for the nursing mom. From the health benefits to the financial advantages, breastfeeding is a win-win for both mother and child.

According to the 2011 Surgeon General's Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding, breastfeeding improves maternal health outcomes – which basically means nursing mothers have better health in the long-term, compared to women who never breastfeed.

1. Breastfeeding Gives Breast Cancer Protection.
One of the major advantages of breastfeeding is it protects you from cancer. Compared to nursing mothers, women who never breastfeed are at increased risk for certain types of cancer, including breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Recent studies have shown that women who breastfeed can reduce their risk of breast cancer by 25 percent. The longer a woman breastfeeds, the lower the risk. The association between breastfeeding and lowered breast cancer is not completely understood.

Some researchers argue it's because women are less likely to ovulate when lactating. When a woman doesn't ovulate, she has lower levels of breast-cancer promoting hormones, like estradiol and progesterone, in her body. So the fewer times that she ovulates, the lower the risk of breast cancer.

Other experts theorize that women who do not breastfeed experience engorgement, which may inflame her breast tissue. This inflammation may potentially cause breast cancer. When a woman breastfeeds, this inflammation is prevented.

2. Reduce the Risk of Ovarian Cancer
Similarly, the risk of ovarian cancer is 27 percent higher in women who never breastfed. Breastfeeding may offer mothers added protection from this serious cancer, since lactation prevents ovulation.

The exact cause of ovarian cancer is not known, but one of the risk factors is related to how many eggs the ovary releases. Each time that a woman ovulates, the surface of her ovary breaks open and the cells on the surface of the ovary must divide to repair the damage. So the more often that she ovulates, she has an increased risk of ovarian cancer. This is the reason that ovarian cancer occurs more often in older women and women who have no children.

For breastfeeding mothers, the longer that they nurse their babies, the more likely they won't ovulate. This decreases the risk of ovarian cancer.

3. Protect Against Osteoporosis
A number of studies have indicated that breastfeeding may increase bone mineral density after weaning, which can protect mothers from osteoporosis and bone fractures in old age. This link hasn't been proven conclusively, and experts are still looking into this subject.

4. Burn Calories with Breastfeeding
In general, women who breastfeed can drop one or two pounds each month. Breastfeeding helps you burn calories naturally. Plus, each time that you nurse your baby, the hormone oxytocin is released. Among other things, oxytocin helps your uterus return to its regular size more quickly. All of this can help you lose your pregnancy weight quicker.

5. Breastfeeding Reduces Stress
Breastfeeding improves the connecting between mother and child. Women who breastfed are better able to bond and feel close to their babies right away. The skin-on-skin contact can boost the levels of oxytocin in the mother's body. Oxytocin is the hormone that helps breast milk flow, and it helps calm the mother. It's sometimes called the love or bonding hormone.

In addition, research has found that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety. The longer that a mother breastfeeds, the lower her risk for postpartum emotional problems.

6. Financial Benefits of Breastfeeding
In addition to all the health benefits, breastfeeding is less expensive than formula feeding. This should be a no-brainer – breast milk is free, and you must pay for formula. Buying infant formula and feeding supplies can cost families over $1,500 each year.

On top of this, formula-fed babies tend to face more illnesses, such as gastrointestinal discomforts. Healthier babies equate to fewer health insurance claims and less time off to care for your baby.

Research has found that if 90 percent of families exclusively breastfed for six months (which is what pediatricians and doctors recommend), nearly 1,000 infant deaths could be prevented. In addition, the United States would save $13 million annually. Medical care costs are lower for exclusively breastfed infants, compared to babies who are formula fed.

With all these benefits, how can you not breastfeed?

7. Breastfeeding is a Natural Birth Control MethodYou may have heard that breastfeeding is a "natural birth control" method. There is truth to this – breastfeeding can suppress ovulation. The hormone prolactin, which helps you produce breast milk, lowers the hormones that trigger ovulation. This is why nursing mothers notice a delay in their menstrual cycles.

This delay is called "lactational amenorrhea," and it used by many as a natural contraceptive method. It is considered 98 percent effective under the following circumstances:

  • Your menstrual period has not returned

  • Your baby is under six months old

  • You are exclusively breastfeeding, and you're nursing frequently in the day and night. During the day, you need to nurse at least once every four hours. At night, you should not let more than six hours pass between each feeding.

To keep your prolactin levels high enough, it's important that your baby sucks at your breast. Avoid supplemental bottles, if you can.

Lactational amenorrhea only works if you breastfeed very frequently and consistently. Its effectiveness will lessen once you start to feed your baby solid foods. Don't rely on the presence of your period – you can get pregnant again without your period returning.

To ensure that you do not get pregnant again, you should consider another birth control method, such as condoms.


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