Breastmilk is the best food for most babies. Breastmilk contains all the nutrients a baby needs for healthy growth and development during the first six months of life, as well as substances that help protect a baby from many illnesses. Breastfeeding provides health benefits for the mother, including earlier return to her pre-pregnancy weight. And there are emotional benefits for mother and baby from the special bond that develops between them.
The March of Dimes urges all new mothers to breastfeed if they are able. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that a baby be breastfed for at least twelve months (1). However, even babies who breastfeed for only a short period of time experience health benefits.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding for the baby?
Breastmilk provides the ideal amounts of protein, sugar, fat and most vitamins a baby needs for healthy growth and development. Breastmilk also contains substances called antibodies that help protect a baby from many illnesses. Studies show that breastfed babies are less likely than formula-fed babies to have ear infections, lower-respiratory infections (such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis), meningitis, urinary tract infections and diarrhea (1). Studies also suggest that breastfed babies may be less likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) (1). Breastmilk is easy for a baby to digest, so the baby may have less gas and discomfort than a formula-fed baby.
The health benefits of breastfeeding can last a lifetime. Studies suggest that children and adults who were breastfed are less likely to develop asthma, insulin-dependent diabetes and certain cancers (leukemia, lymphoma and Hodgkin’s disease) (1). Babies who were breastfed may be less likely to become obese later in life (1).
Breastfeeding also may enhance brain development. Some studies suggest that children who were breastfed may score higher on tests of cognitive ability than children who were fed formula (1).
What are the benefits of breastfeeding for the mother?
Breastfeeding leads to increased levels of a hormone called oxytocin that causes the new mother’s uterus to contract. This contraction helps reduce bleeding after delivery and shrink the uterus to its pre-pregnancy size. Breastfeeding also delays the return of a woman’s menstrual period, helping her to postpone another pregnancy. It is difficult to determine when fertility will return in a breastfeeding mother. So if a woman and her partner do not want another baby right away, they should use birth control when they start having sex again.
Breastfeeding mothers burn more calories than women who don’t breastfeed, so they tend to return to their pre-pregnancy weight more quickly. This is true even though a breastfeeding woman should eat 500 extra calories a day to keep up their milk supply and meet their own nutritional needs (2). Studies suggest that breastfeeding may help reduce a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer (1, 2).
The following organizations can also provide materials and assistance:
1. American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk: Policy Statement. Pediatrics, volume 115, number 2, February 2005, pages 496-506.
2. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Your Pregnancy and Birth, 4th Edition. ACOG, Washington, DC, 2005.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Neurologic Impairment in Children Associated with Maternal Dietary Deficiency of Cobalamin—Georgia, 2001. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, volume 52, number 4, January 31, 2003, pages 61-64.
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Breastfeeding Practices: Results from the 2003 National Immunization Survey. Updated 8/11/04.
Meek, J.Y. (editor-in-chief). American Academy of Pediatrics New Mother’s Guide to Breastfeeding. New York: Bantam Books, 2002.