When it comes to feeding your baby, breast milk is considered hands-down the best source of nutrients. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusively breastfeeding for six months, then gradually adding in solid foods while continuing to nurse through baby’s first year and beyond. Why? Because breastfeeding offers a host of benefits for your child, from boosting baby’s immune system to preventing food allergies and warding off acute illnesses down the road. After all, our bodies are specifically designed to produce nutrient-rich food for baby. “Breastfeeding isn’t something ‘extra’ mothers can do to give their babies an advantage over other babies—it’s babies' biological norm,” says Lisa Fortin, IBCLC, a New York City-based lactation consultant and member of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE), a global organization that certifies practitioners in lactation and breastfeeding care. “Like any other mammal, we’re programmed to nurse soon after birth, making breastfeeding just plain normal.”
So what makes breast milk the best food for baby, and why is nursing seen as such a positive for mom? Read on to learn about the emotional, economic and health benefits of breastfeeding for both you and baby.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Baby
Study after study shows there are immense breastfeeding benefits for baby. The common thread? Nursing helps keep your infant healthy, from infanthood into childhood and beyond. Here, a breakdown of the specific positives for breastfed babies:
Boosts baby’s immune system
Breast milk contains the ideal mix of antibodies to build baby’s immune system, making breastfed babies less likely to have ear infections, respiratory illness, allergies, stomach bugs and colds. “A breastfed baby will receive his immune system from his mom, from the first drops of rich colostrum to the disease-specific antibodies mom will make,” Fortin says. So if you encounter a nasty bug, your immune system will create the right antibodies to squash it, and then share them with baby via breast milk.
The health benefits of breastfeeding for baby can even continue into adulthood, helping to reduce your child’s risk of diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease later in life. Breastfeeding can also help prevent cancer: A study published in the Journal of Human Lactation found high levels of cancer-fighting proteins (called TNF-related apoptosis inducing ligand) in human milk, which provides better protection against cancer as well as some autoimmune diseases.
Helps kids maintain a healthy weight
“We know that children and adults who have been breastfed are more likely to be of a normal weight and body composition,” Fortin says. “Feeding at the breast—even more so than drinking breast milk from a bottle—allows babies from the very earliest age to regulate their food intake. They can eat when they’re hungry, take a break if they desire and stop when they’re satiated,” helping to instill healthy eating habits that can have a lasting impact.
Improves brain development
Breastfeeding not only provides baby with important health benefits, but it also can help boost baby’s cognitive development. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry followed nearly 14,000 children over the course of six and a half years, and found that the kids who were exclusively breastfed had a higher IQ than those who weren’t (about 6 percent higher, on average). Those who had been breastfed also received better test scores and higher ratings from their teachers. The explanation? As Fontin tells us, certain ingredients in breast milk (including a unique fatty acid profile) are crucial to brain development, and no one has been able to perfectly replicate them in baby formula thus far.
Can prevent the need for braces
The longer you breastfeed, the less likely baby is to suffer from malocclusion—a fancy word for misaligned teeth. According to a study from Brazil, breastfeeding baby for at least nine months is one of the most effective ways to prevent baby’s teeth from becoming crooked. That’s because a mother’s nipple is soft and pliant. The silicone or latex nipple on a bottle? Doesn’t quite compare.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom
There are breastfeeding benefits for baby galore—but nursing isn’t just good for babies. The benefits of breastfeeding for mom are just as plentiful, and go far beyond simply helping you lose that baby weight (though it’s a fun bonus). Find out all the ways moms benefit from breastfeeding.
Speeds up the postpartum healing process
Moms who breastfeed after giving birth are able to sleep better, thanks to the release of the hormone oxytocin, which means they can heal quicker. And because breastfeeding burns about 20 calories per ounce dispelled, on average, breastfeeding moms drop pounds at a faster rate too.
Helps you bond with baby faster
Breastfeeding baby is a highly intimate journey for mom and baby. “Breastfeeding seems to help moms bond better,” Hubschman says. “The more time you spend with your baby, the more attention you pay to your baby, the more you watch their feeding cues and other behavior signs, the better you’re going to know your baby, which I think contributes to maternal confidence.” And a boost to your confidence as a mom is always a good thing.
Lowers your risk of diseases
“The longer you breastfeed, the more you’ll reduce your risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes,” says Lilly Hubschman, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and Board Certified Neonatal Nurse Practitioner at Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC. “It’s not just about bonding with your baby. Breastfeeding really is a public health issue.” In fact, moms who breastfed were 1.5 times less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than those who didn’t in a study from Columbia University. And the more children they breastfed, the lower their risk became.
Saves you lots of money
One of the best breastfeeding benefits? The milk is free! Formula, however, is not. Babies drink about 9,000 ounces of milk in their first year, and at about 19 cents an ounce, that amounts to $1,700 in the first year alone.
Doesn’t call for prep time
When you breastfeed, baby’s food is always ready: It requires no preparation, is on-hand wherever you go and comes out at the perfect temperature every time.
Benefits of Breastfeeding After One Year
When it comes down to it, most moms want to breastfeed. The CDC reports that 81 percent of women start breastfeeding after childbirth. But that figure drops to 52 percent at the six-month mark, and down to 31 percent at 12 months. “There are a number of reasons for this, including a mom’s return to the workforce and the fact that, due to some dated societal norms, some women stop feeling comfortable breastfeeding, publicly or privately.” But there are some important benefits of breastfeeding after one year. In fact, the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding baby until age 2 and beyond. Here’s what you need to know:
Continues to strengthen baby’s health
After six month, babies need supplemental nutrition beyond just breast milk. But that doesn’t mean that breastfeeding no longer benefits your child—or you. “Every drop counts,” Hubschman says, noting that all the health benefits that are true of breastfeeding up to one year are still true after. According to the AAP, there is no known point at which breast milk becomes nutritionally negligible.
Saves on sick days
Breastfeeding can strengthen baby’s immune systems, protecting your child against a range of diseases and infections—”not only while he’s breastfeeding, but in some cases long after he has weaned,” the AAP says. And the less baby is sick, the less time you have to take off work—a particular bonus if your company doesn’t offer a ton of sick days.
Helps ensure that your child is happy and confident
The benefits of breastfeeding after one year extend to baby’s emotional health, as well as physical. “As your child moves from babyhood toward toddlerhood, breastfeeding continues to act as a source of profound comfort and security, laying the groundwork for a confident, happy, and healthy future,” the AAP says. “For this reason, as well as the continued nutritional and immunologic benefits of breastfeeding, the AAP advises mothers to continue nursing beyond the first year for as long as mutually desired by mother and child.”
Of course, while breastfeeding is a totally natural behavior, it doesn’t always come naturally or easily to new moms. Fontin’s message to moms who are struggling: Don’t be discouraged! “It’s amazing what moms will go through. I've personally worked with women who have jumped major hurdles—adoption, preterm twins, breast reduction surgery—and succeeded in their breastfeeding goals,” she says. “But good lactation support from a trained professional is key.” Fontin recommends visiting the La Leche League website, where you can connect with IBCLC-certified lactation consultants and knowledgeable volunteers. She also suggests exploring supplemental nursing systems, like Lact-Aid, which can mimic the feel of breastfeeding for both mom and baby.
“Mothers need the support of knowledgeable hospital staff, compassionate lactation professionals and encouragement from their partners, mothers, sisters, aunts, friends and places of employment,” Hubschman says. “The wider population needs to welcome and rejoice women nursing their babies.”
Published July 2017