How breastfeeding benefits mothers and babies

Breast milk provides the perfect blend of calories, nutrients, and antibodies to your baby. It even changes to meet the needs of your baby as he grows. In fact, the composition of human milk not only differs from woman to woman but also over the course of hours, days, weeks, and months as it adjusts to your baby's needs. 

Antibodies designed for your baby

One drop of human breast milk contains more than one million white blood cells. These cells contain antibodies that help fight infection and other diseases. A baby's immature immune system is unable to effectively fight infection on its own, so they rely on the antibodies in breast milk to give them the protection needed to ward off and overcome illnesses.

Breast milk is often referred to as a baby’s “first immunization” since the antibodies found in it are specially tailored to combat the germs that mothers have been exposed to. These antibodies are passed through the mother’s milk to her baby. That’s why even when a mother gets sick, her breastfed baby often does not. Despite being exposed to the same infection-causing germs, the baby receives protective antibodies through his mother’s milk. 

Studies have proven that breastfed babies have less risk for childhood illnesses, including ear infections, diarrhea, necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), and chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

Reduce the risk of SIDS

Breastfeeding also helps to protect babies from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the leading cause of death in infants one month to one year of age. The exact mechanism is unclear but because breastfed babies spend less time in deep sleep, they may be more likely to awaken if there is a breathing problem. Breastfeeding also lowers the risk of infection, which may reduce the risk of SIDS. 

Healthier moms

Mothers also reap many health benefits while breastfeeding their baby, including:

  • Lower risk for excessive bleeding (hemorrhage) after birth, and helps the uterus return to its normal size.
  • Lower risk for uterine, breast, and ovarian cancer. The longer you breastfeed, the more this risk declines.
  • Lower risk for heart disease and other serious health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke.
  • The calories used each day for milk production may make losing weight easier. Mothers who breastfeed exclusively for three months tend to lose weight gained during pregnancy sooner.
  • Mothers who breastfeed exclusively on demand (day and night) for the first six months are less likely to get pregnant, which makes child spacing easier.
  • Oxytocin (the hormone linked to maternal behavior) is released throughout the breastfeeding cycle and can cause a calming effect on postpartum maternal mood disorders such as depression. 

More breastfeeding benefits

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and baby. 

In addition to the numerous health benefits breastfeeding provides to both moms and babies, other advantages include:

  • Convenience. No mixing, measuring, or clean up. 
  • Mobility. Breasts and babies are portable, making travel simple. 
  • Availability. Breast milk is the ultimate fast food—always available and at just the right temperature. 
  • Cost. Breastfeeding saves money—an average of $1,600 the first year in infant formula costs alone. (Perhaps three times that much if you use a special formula due to allergies or other concerns.) 
  • Eco-friendly. Breasts are designed to handle any serving size, so many mothers have no need for bottles or nipples. 

The emotional benefits of breastfeeding are equally important but more difficult to measure. Something happens when a mother cradles her baby in her arms and puts her baby to her breast. That ‘something’ may be impossible to measure, but it resonates from a mother’s caress, the soothing sound of her voice, her baby’s rhythmic suckling, and the aura of calmness that surrounds both mother and baby. Add-in the release of oxytocin while breastfeeding, and it’s easy to see why breastfeeding is also touted for its emotional benefits. 

Last updated April 12, 2020

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