Deciding to breastfeed is a personal choice. But because there's an overwhelming amount of information to digest, new mothers may find it challenging to decide whether it's the right decision for them and their newborn. However, besides providing complete and balanced nutrition, breastfeeding offers significant health advantages for both babies and their mothers.
Around 3.6 million babies are born in the U.S. each year. Most of these infants — around 85% — start life on breastmilk, but by 6 months, only 58% are breastfeeding.
The World Health Organization recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months to ensure they receive all the nutrients and antibodies they need for proper development. Even after solid, complementary foods are introduced, breastfeeding can continue for 2 years and beyond.
These recommendations are based on decades of research and evidence that show the immense benefits of breastfeeding. Continue reading as we explore some breastfeeding advantages for baby and mother.
1. Breast milk provides ideal nutrition
Experts recommend exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first 6 months of life, preferably longer.
Breastmilk contains all the nutrients a baby needs in the ideal proportions. In addition, it's dynamic and tailored to a baby's changing needs as they grow and develop. So it always provides the perfect mix of nutrients, even as a baby's digestive system matures.
In the first days after birth, the first milk (colostrum) is high in protein, low in sugar, and packed with beneficial compounds. Unfortunately, a commercial formula cannot replicate the composition of this vital early milk.
2. Breast milk contains antibodies that protect against infection
Breast milk is packed with antibodies that protect babies against bacteria and viruses. These substances are passed from mother to infant, providing immunity (protection) against disease, which is crucial in the early months when a baby's immune system is still developing.
Colostrum is rich in the antibody immunoglobulin A (IgA). It coats the lining of the digestive system and prevents harmful bacteria and viruses from attaching.
Formula doesn't provide this protection. Countless studies have shown that formula-fed babies are more likely to develop ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and other infections.
3. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of disease
Because breastmilk provides immunity, it reduces the risk of numerous diseases, including:
- Ear infections.
- Respiratory tract infections.
- Heart disease.
- Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
- Childhood leukemia.
Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The longer you exclusively breastfeed your baby, the lower their risk of SIDS.
4. Breast milk helps babies gain weight
Breastmilk assists in healthy weight gain while preventing childhood obesity.
A study showed that breastfeeding for more than 4 months significantly reduced the likelihood of a baby later developing overweight or obesity. Potentially, this is because breastfed babies have higher levels of beneficial bacteria in their digestive systems, which may impact fat storage.
Breastmilk also increases leptin, a key hormone for regulating appetite and fat storage.
5. Breastfeeding boosts intelligence
Studies suggest that breastfed babies have better brain development compared to formula-fed babies. These differences may be due to nutrition or the physical intimacy while breastfeeding. Mother-to-child touch during breastfeeding may strengthen a baby's sensory and emotional development.
Breastfed babies have higher intelligence scores. They're also less likely to develop behavioral problems or have learning difficulties as they grow.
6. Breastfeeding helps mothers lose weight
During pregnancy with one baby, the average woman gains around 25 to 35 pounds (11 to 16 kg). If you're carrying twins, this may increase to 37 to 54 pounds (17 to 25 kg).
Losing this weight can be difficult, but breastfeeding may help. When the body makes breastmilk, it uses energy. So, breastfeeding can help you burn extra calories, lose pregnancy pounds, and return to your pre-pregnancy weight faster.
7. Breastfeeding helps the uterus to return to pre-pregnancy size
Your uterus expands significantly during pregnancy to accommodate the growing baby. After giving birth, it takes time for your uterus to return to its normal size. The process of uterine contraction is called involution.
As you breastfeed, you release the hormone oxytocin, also known as the feel-good or love hormone. Oxytocin helps the uterus contract, encouraging involution and reducing blood loss after delivery. These effects help the uterus return to its normal size faster.
8. Breastfeed reduces depression risk
For some women, the postpartum period is associated with a significant drop in mood and energy levels, known as postpartum depression.
The oxytocin released during breastfeeding also has a calming effect and promotes bonding between mother and baby.
Studies show that people who breastfeed appear less likely to develop postpartum depression than those who don't breastfeed or only breastfeed for a short period.
However, women who experience postpartum depression soon after delivery are more likely to have breastfeeding problems. As a result, they're more likely to stop breastfeeding earlier.
Anyone with symptoms of postpartum depression should talk to a doctor as soon as possible.
9. Breastfeeding reduces the mother's risk of disease
Evidence suggests that breastfeeding may also offer some health benefits for the mother, including a reduced risk of:
- High blood pressure.
- Type 2 diabetes.
- Ovarian cancer.
- Breast cancer.
It's thought that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the greater the protection against these diseases. The reason may be that breastfeeding lowers estrogen levels, which are associated with increased cancer risk. Also, during pregnancy and breastfeeding, you shed breast tissue. This removes cells with potential DNA damage, which could lower breast cancer risk.
10. Breastfeeding may pause ovulation and menstruation
Continual breastfeeding delays ovulation and menstruation. It may be a mechanism to allow the mother to recover before she becomes pregnant again.
However, it's not a reliable method of birth control because ovulation can return at any time. So, if you want to avoid pregnancy, you should also use another form of contraception.
11. Breastfeeding saves time, money, and the environment
Formula, water, and bottles require time and effort to prepare. You'll also need to purchase extra supplies, such as bottle warmers and sterilizing equipment.
With breastfeeding, there's no need to buy, prepare, or clean bottles and nipples. And you don't have to worry about running out of formula in the middle of the night.
Breastmilk is free and always available. In addition, it doesn't require any packaging, transportation, or refrigeration, which helps reduce your carbon footprint.
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