The Benefits of Breastfeeding

The World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, starting within the first hour of birth. Infants should be breastfed "on demand" every 1 1/2 to three hours day and night, while newborns should not go about four hours without feeding, even overnight.

Breastfeeding can be a wonderful experience for both mother and child as it creates a special bonding and provides the ideal nourishment for the baby's growing needs. Here are other health benefits of breastfeeding and other things you should know to help you get started:

What Are the Benefits of Breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding has health benefits for both babies and mothers. It is particularly beneficial for premature babies and sick newborns. Additionally, skin-to-skin contact can enhance the emotional connection between mother and infant.

Benefits for Infants

Infants who are breastfed have reduced risks of:

  • Asthma
  • Obesity
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Severe lower respiratory disease
  • Acute otitis media (ear infections)
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Gastrointestinal infections (diarrhea/vomiting)
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) for preterm infants

Benefits for Mothers

Mothers who breastfeed their infants have a lower risk of:

  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Breast cancer

Is Breast Milk Better Than Formula?

Some women may find breastfeeding too difficult or stressful or have medical conditions that may prevent them from breastfeeding. Commercially prepared infant formulas are a nutritious alternative to breast milk. Baby formulas attempt to duplicate breast milk through a complex combination of proteins, sugars, fats and vitamins. Formulas even contain some vitamins and nutrients breastfed babies need from supplements like vitamin D and iron.

However, there are also challenges when choosing whether to formula feed. Manufactured formulas are not capable of recreating the antibodies found in breast milk, so they cannot provide a baby with the added protection against infection and illnesses that breast milk does.

Manufactured formulas have yet to duplicate the complexity of breast milk, which adjusts as the baby's needs change. Using baby formula also requires planning and organization to ensure it's always on hand and served at the right temperature. Hypoallergenic and soy-based specialty formulas cost far more than the basic formulas. Formula-fed babies may have more gas and firmer bowel movements than breastfed babies.

Deciding whether to feed your baby with breast milk or manufactured formula can be difficult. Talk to your doctor or lactation consultant so they can provide you with more information about your options.

Are Breastfed Babies Healthier?

According to the WHO, breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests and are less likely to develop life-threatening diseases like obesity and diabetes later in life. Any amount of breast milk reaps positive benefits. However, the longer you breastfeed, the longer the protection lasts and the greater the benefits for you and your baby.

How Long Should You Breastfeed?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding your child for about six months and then gradually introducing foods and drinks other than breast milk and infant formula (also called complementary foods) until your child reaches 12 months old or older.

Remember, it is a good practice to encourage healthy eating patterns at a young age to promote healthy habits in the future. Give your child various fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meats, yogurt and cheeses. When your child reaches 12 months old, you can offer plain, whole cow's milk or fortified unsweetened soy beverages aside from water, breast milk and infant formula.

Who Shouldn't Breastfeed?

There are rare instances when human milk or breastfeeding is not recommended. Some medical conditions, such as chemotherapy or certain medicines, can be unsafe for babies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend breastfeeding or feeding expressed breast milk (milk produced from squeezing milk out of your breast for storage and later use) to infants in the following situations:

  • Infants diagnosed with classic galactosemia, a rare genetic metabolic disorder that affects how the body processes a simple sugar called galactose
  • Mothers infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Mothers infected with human T-cell lymphotropic virus type I or II
  • Mothers using illicit street drugs, such as phencyclidine (PCP) or cocaine
  • Mothers suspected or infected with Ebola virus disease

What Is a Lactation Consultant?

A lactation consultant is a professional specially trained to provide general prenatal and postpartum breastfeeding support under the supervision of a physician. Education and management help mothers address the many challenges of breastfeeding and lactation, such as nipple pain and low milk supply.

Mothers and parents need to talk to their doctor or lactation consultant to help them weigh their options to make the best decision for their baby and family.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
KidsHealth
National Health Service UK
World Health Organization

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