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Benefits of Breastfeeding


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Breast milk is widely acknowledged as the most complete form of nutrition for infants, with a range of benefits for infants' health, growth, immunity and development.
-- Healthy People 2010, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia

Breast milk is a unique nutritional source that cannot adequately be replaced by any other food, including infant formula. Although pollutants can accumulate in breast milk, it remains superior to infant formula from the perspective of the overall health of both mother and child.

Infants are fragile and susceptible to disease, partly because their bodies are not fully developed. They must be treated with special care and given adequate nourishment. Infant formulas are able to mimic a few of the nutritional components of breast milk, but formula cannot hope to duplicate the vast and constantly changing array of essential nutrients in human milk. Nevertheless, breastfeeding is often devalued, both in the United States and abroad, and in many parts of the world it must compete with relentless advertising by infant-formula companies.

Studies have demonstrated a number of important health benefits to breastfeeding. Among them:

  • Breast-fed children are more resistant to disease and infection early in life than formula-fed children

  • Breast-fed children are less likely to contract a number of diseases later in life, including juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and cancer before the age of 15

  • Mothers who breastfeed are less likely to develop osteoporosis later in life, are able to lose weight gained during pregnancy more easily and have a lower risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer

Breastfeeding also has economic advantages: it's cheaper than buying formula and helps avoid medical bills later because it helps equip the baby to fight off disease and infection. New parents are well advised to learn all they can about the pros and cons of breast milk and formula. See below for more information on the benefits of breastfeeding.


The United States Lags in Breastfeeding

The United States has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the industrialized world, and one of the highest rates of infant mortality. Data from 2003 indicate that 71 percent of U.S. mothers initiate some breastfeeding, and only 36 percent report feeding any human milk to their infants at six months. Rates in the African-American community are lower, with only 55 percent of women initiating breastfeeding and only 24 percent still breastfeeding at six months. Those numbers stand in marked contrast to Sweden, for example, where the breastfeeding initiation rate exceeds 98 percent and the rate at six months is 72 percent. In Sweden, there is a high level of awareness about chemical contaminants in breast milk, yet most mothers make the wise decision to breastfeed their children anyway.

Benefits to the Child in the First Years of Life

Breast milk is a unique combination of nutrients essential to a child's health, and cannot be duplicated by any laboratory formula. It provides a number of health advantages beginning at birth and continuing throughout a child's life. In fact, a large number of the health problems today's children face might be decreased, or even prevented, by breastfeeding the infant exclusively for at least the first six months of life. The longer the mother breastfeeds, the more likely her child will get the health benefits of breastfeeding.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that mothers breastfeed for at least the first year of a child's life and continue until they both feel they are ready to stop. In the first six months, the baby should be nourished exclusively by breast milk. The slow introduction of iron-enriched foods may complement the breastfeeding in the second half of the first year. Breast milk without supplements during the first six months reduces the possibility of food contamination due to tainted water or malnutrition as a result of over-diluted formula. Therefore, the child should be nursed without the interference of water, sugar water, juices, or formulas, unless a specific medical condition indicates otherwise. The AAP asserts that breast milk has the perfect balance of nutrients for the infant. It is by itself enough sustenance for approximately the first six months of life and should follow as the child's staple throughout the first year.

A variety of studies have demonstrated that breastfeeding increases a child's immunity to disease and infection:

  • Many studies show that breastfeeding strengthens the immune system. During nursing, the mother passes antibodies to the child, which help the child resist diseases and help improve the normal immune response to certain vaccines.

  • Respiratory illness is far more common among formula-fed children. In fact, an analysis of many different research studies concluded that infants fed formula face a threefold greater risk of being hospitalized with a severe respiratory infection than do infants breast-fed for a minimum of four months.

  • Diarrheal disease is three to four times more likely to occur in infants fed formula than those fed breast milk.

  • Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the likelihood of ear infections, and to prevent recurrent ear infections. Ear infections are a major reason that infants take multiple courses of antibiotics.

  • In developing countries, differences in infection rates can seriously affect an infant's chances for survival. For example, in Brazil, a formula-fed baby is 14 times more likely to die than an exclusively breast-fed baby.

  • Researchers have observed a decrease in the probability of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in breast-fed infants.

  • Another apparent benefit from breastfeeding may be protection from allergies. Eczema, an allergic reaction, is significantly rarer in breast-fed babies. A review of 132 studies on allergy and breastfeeding concluded that breastfeeding appears to help protect children from developing allergies, and that the effect seems to be particularly strong among children whose parents have allergies.


Benefits to the Child Later in Life

Some benefits of breastfeeding become apparent as the child grows older. Among the benefits demonstrated by research:

  • Infants who are breast-fed longer have fewer dental cavities throughout their lives.

  • Several recent studies have shown that children who were breast-fed are significantly less likely to become obese later in childhood. Formula feeding is linked to about a 20 to 30 percent greater likelihood that the child will become obese.

  • Children who are exclusively breast-fed during the first three months of their lives are 34 percent less likely to develop juvenile, insulin-dependent diabetes than children who are fed formula.

  • Breastfeeding may also decrease the risk of childhood cancer in children under 15 years of age. Formula-fed children are eight times more likely to develop cancer than children who are nursed for more than six months. (It is important to note that children who are breast-fed for less than six months do not appear to have any decreased cancer risk compared to bottle-fed children.)

  • As children grow into adults, several studies have shown that people who were breast-fed as infants have lower blood pressure on average than those who were formula-fed. Thus, it is not surprising that other studies have shown that heart disease is less likely to develop in adults who were breast-fed in infancy.

  • Significant evidence suggests that breast-fed children develop fewer psychological, behavioral and learning problems as they grow older. Studies also indicate that cognitive development is increased among children whose mothers choose to breastfeed.

  • In researching the psychological benefits of breast milk, one researcher found that breast-fed children were, on average, more mature, assertive and secure with themselves as they developed.


Benefits to the Mother

Studies indicate that breastfeeding helps improve mothers' health, as well as their children's. A woman grows both physically and emotionally from the relationship she forms with her baby. Just as a woman's breast milk is designed specifically to nourish the body of an infant, the production and delivery of this milk aids her own health. For example:

  • Breastfeeding helps a woman to lose weight after birth. Mothers burn many calories during lactation as their bodies produce milk. In fact, some of the weight gained during pregnancy serves as an energy source for lactation.

  • Breastfeeding releases a hormone in the mother (oxytocin) that causes the uterus to return to its normal size more quickly.

  • When a woman gives birth and proceeds to nurse her baby, she protects herself from becoming pregnant again too soon, a form of birth control found to be 98 percent effective -- more effective than a diaphragm or condom. Scientists believe this process prevents more births worldwide than all forms of contraception combined. In Africa, breastfeeding prevents an estimated average of four births per woman, and in Bangladesh it prevents an estimated average of 6.5 births per woman.

  • Breastfeeding appears to reduce the mother's risk of developing osteoporosis in later years. Although mothers experience bone-mineral loss during breastfeeding, their mineral density is replenished and even increased after lactation.

  • Diabetic women improve their health by breastfeeding. Not only do nursing infants have increased protection from juvenile diabetes, the amount of insulin that the mother requires postpartum goes down.

  • Women who lactate for a total of two or more years reduce their chances of developing breast cancer by 24 percent.

  • Women who breastfeed their children have been shown to be less likely to develop uterine, endometrial or ovarian cancer.

  • The emotional health of the mother may be enhanced by the relationship she develops with her infant during breastfeeding, resulting in fewer feelings of anxiety and a stronger sense of connection with her baby.

  • A woman's ability to produce all of the nutrients that her child needs can provide her with a sense of confidence. Researchers have pointed out that the bond of a nursing mother and child is stronger than any other human contact. Holding the child to her breast provides most mothers with a more powerful psychological experience than carrying the fetus inside her uterus. The relationship between mother and child is rooted in the interactions of breastfeeding. This feeling sets the health and psychological foundation for years to come.


Social and Economic Benefits of Breastfeeding

The benefits of breastfeeding go beyond health considerations. Mothers who nurse their children enjoy social and economic advantages as well. For example:

  • Women who breastfeed avoid the financial burden of buying infant formula, an average expense of $800 per year.

  • Breast-fed babies are less likely to need excessive medical attention as they grow. 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.

Back to Top | Next: What Mothers Should Do

last revised 3.25.05

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