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
Most authorities including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Practice, and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology advocate exclusive breastfeeding during the first 6 month of the baby’s life. In addition to the benefits to the baby, there are benefits to the mother and to society also. With the month of August designated as National Breastfeeding Month, let’s look at some of these benefits.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Babies.
Breast milk is a nutritionally complete food source for babies with a near perfect mix of vitamins, protein, and fat. Breast milk contains maternal antibodies that can help the child resist a number of infectious diseases. This includes gastrointestinal tract infection (e.g. diarrhea), respiratory tract infections (e.g. colds), urinary tract infections, and otitis media (middle ear infection). Additionally, infants who are not breastfed have a higher risk of experiencing sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Other health benefits attributed to breastfeeding that are carried into childhood or adulthood include:
- Studies have shown that the effects of breastfeeding may also protect young children and adolescents from becoming overweight, having elevated cholesterol levels, and developing Type 2 diabetes.
- Giving only human milk until the intestines mature at around 6 months appears to keep potentially allergy-causing proteins out of the baby’s system. This appears to reduce the likelihood of developing allergies to foods, asthma, and allergic skin rashes such as eczema.
- There is some evidence to suggest that exclusive breastfeeding may also provide protection against the development of Type 1 diabetes. A possible mechanism for this is that the less well digested proteins from cow’s milk or soy milk may trigger an autoimmune response which targets the pancreas.
- In a study performed in Brazil, individuals who were exclusively breastfed were found to have higher IQ scores (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale) at age 30 as compared to those who were never breastfed.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Moms.
Studies indicate that breastfeeding helps improve mothers’ health also. Examples of this include:
- Breastfeeding releases a hormone in the mother called oxytocin that causes the uterus to return to its normal size more quickly.
- The process of milk production consumes additional calories, helping with reducing back to pre-pregnancy weight.
- Women typically lose 3 to 5 percent of their bone mass during breastfeeding, although they recover it rapidly after weaning. Some studies suggest that the more times a woman has been pregnant, the greater her bone density becomes which lowers her risk of fracture later in life.
- Research suggests that breastfeeding has a slight effect on lowering the risk of developing breast cancer. This is noted primarily among women who have breastfed for a considerable length of time.
Social and Economic Benefits of Breastfeeding
The benefits of breastfeeding go beyond health considerations. There are a number of social and economic benefits also:
- An analysis performed by the US Department of Agriculture in 2001 found that “a minimum of $3.6 billion dollars would be saved if breastfeeding were increased from the current levels (64 percent in-hospital, 29 percent at 6 months) to those recommended by the U.S. Surgeon General (75 and 50 percent).” This amount took into consideration the reduction in medical expenses related to the treatment of only 3 common childhood illnesses (otitis media, gastroenteritis, and necrotizing enterocolitis). In all likelihood this figure would be even higher today considering the newer recommendation to breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months of life.
- Continuous breastfeeding (every 4 to 6 hours) can serve as an effective means of contraception during the first 6 months after delivery. While a woman is continuously breastfeeding, her body does not make a hormone that is necessary for the release of an egg from an ovary. Particularly in developing countries, this has been an important means of controlling population growth.
- It has been estimated that breastfeeding, instead of feeding with commercial formula, can result in a savings of between $800-1000 per year.
Clearly, exclusive breastfeeding presents challenges, particularly for women in the workplace. An interesting presentation of some of these challenges as well as a rebuttal of some of the claims made in this and other articles extoling the benefits of breastfeeding are mentioned in an Atlantic Monthly opinion piece titled, “The Case Against Breastfeeding“. Nevertheless, by the end of the article, the author and mother of three who had exclusively breastfed two of her children and was partly breastfeeding the third states, “I also know that this is probably my last chance to feel warm baby skin up against mine, and one day I will miss it.”