Human milk has everything a baby’s body needs—a perfect blend of calories, nutrients, and antibodies. Parents looking to protect their child from asthma are urged to breastfeed. Parents hoping to keep their preemie from developing necrotizing enterocolitis (a life-threatening gastrointestinal infection) are encouraged to breastfeed.
And while there’s no guarantee that your breastfed child will be disease free, research shows that the odds are in her favor. In addition to protecting your child against common illnesses (such as ear infections or diarrhea), breastfeeding can also reduce her risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes, pneumonia, hypertension, urinary tract infections, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and a myriad of other acute and chronic diseases.
Although many of the ingredients in breast milk are yet to be determined, scientists are getting closer to understanding how human milk protects. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center recently discovered that breast milk supports the growth of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract that aid in the absorption of nutrients and boost immune system development.
One drop of human milk contains more than one million white blood cells—germ eaters called macrophages. Human milk gets its immune boosting properties from antibodies—special proteins that coat the lining of the intestinal tract and keep germs from getting through. The presence of antibodies explains why human milk is referred to as a baby’s first immunization. After all, antibodies are made to order. When babies are exposed to germs in the environment, moms produce antibodies specific to those germs. These protective antibodies are passed from a mother to her baby via mom’s milk. Usually when a mother gets sick, her baby has already been exposed to the germs that cause the infection. In addition to white blood cells and antibodies, human milk contains over 100 oligosaccharides—non-digestible sugars that attach to germs in the baby’s intestinal tract and keep them from causing infection. So truly the best protection a mother can give her baby is to continue breastfeeding for as long as possible.
Breastfeeding versus breast-milk feeding
Even though mothers who breastfeed are healthier (breastfeeding protects against breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer, as well as bone fractures), it’s their babies who benefit most. The benefits for babies are so extensive that the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend that babies be breastfed exclusively for six months and that breastfeeding continue for at least 1–2 years. Plus, the benefits of breastfeeding, for both mother and baby, aren’t limited to optimal growth and disease protection. There are emotional benefits too.
While human milk offers advantages over infant formula, something happens when a mother cradles her baby in her arms and puts her child to her breast. That ‘something’ may be difficult to measure, but it resonates from a mother’s caress, the soothing sound of her voice, her baby’s rhythmic suckling, and the feeling of calmness that surrounds both mother and child. The closeness that breastfeeding requires makes it easier for breastfeeding mothers to develop a strong emotional bond with their babies. Add in the release of oxytocin while breastfeeding (the hormone linked to maternal behavior), and it’s easy to see why breastfeeding is touted for its emotional benefits as well as its health benefits.
Human milk and breastfeeding—often imitated but never duplicated.
Benefits for babies
- Human milk changes to meet the needs of a growing baby, something infant formula can’t do. The composition of human milk not only changes from woman to woman, it also changes in mothers over the course of hours, days, weeks, and months.
- Breastfeeding protects babies from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the leading cause of death in infants 1 month to 1 year of age.
- Breastfed babies have less risk for upper respiratory infections, including ear infections.
- Breastfed babies have less risk for gastrointestinal infections, such as diarrhea.
- Breastfed babies are at lesser risk for chronic bowel diseases, such as necrotizing enterocolitis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease.
- Breastfeeding reduces the risk for allergic diseases (such as asthma and eczema) in babies with a family history of allergic disease.
- Breastfed babies have fewer urinary tract infections.
- Breastfed children consistently perform better on IQ and motor tests.
- Breastfeeding reduces the risk for childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.
- Breastfeeding reduces the risk for childhood cancers, such as leukemia.
- Breastfeeding reduces the risk for high blood pressure.
How breastfeeding benefits moms
- Breastfeeding reduces the risk for excessive bleeding (hemorrhage) after birth, and helps the uterus return to its normal size.
- The calories used each day for milk production make losing weight easier. Mothers who breastfeed have more fat loss one month after birth compared to mothers who formula-feed, and tend to lose weight gained during pregnancy sooner.
- Mothers who breastfeed exclusively for the first six months are less likely to get pregnant, which makes child spacing easier.
- Mothers who breastfeed have less risk for uterine, breast, and ovarian cancer.
- Breastfeeding reduces the risk for heart disease and other serious health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke.
- Women who breastfeed have less risk for osteoporosis (loss of bone density) and hip fractures in later years.
How breastfeeding benefits families
- Breastfeeding is convenient—no mixing, measuring, or clean up.
- Breasts and babies are portable, making travel simple. With a bit of practice, mothers can breastfeed any time, any place.
- Breast milk is the ultimate fast food—always available and at just the right temperature.
- Breastfeeding also saves money—an average of $1,500 the first year in infant formula costs alone.
- Breastfeeding is eco-friendly; breasts are designed to handle any serving size, so there is no need for glass or plastic containers.
- Breastfeeding is fuel-efficient; the only energy needed for milk production is the small number of calories a mom eats each day.
Amy Spangler, MN, RN, IBCLC, is a world-renowned breastfeeding and child nutrition expert. She earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in maternal and infant health from the University of Florida.
Spangler has served as the Chair of the United States Breastfeeding Committee and President of the International Lactation Consultant Association. Spangler currently serves as President of baby gooroo, an online resource where parents and health professionals can access timely information affecting the health of babies and young children.
Second image photo credit: Clare Griffiths