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The Benefits of Breastfeeding

Breast milk is nature's perfect baby food. It contains immunity-boosting antibodies and healthy enzymes that scientists have yet to replicate. Studies have proven that breast milk:

  • Protects against allergies and eczema. If there's a history of either in your family, it may be especially beneficial for you to breastfeed. Proteins in cow's milk and soy milk formulas can stimulate an allergic reaction, while the proteins in human breast milk are more easily digested.
  • Causes less stomach upset, diarrhea, and constipation than formula. This too is because breast milk is so easy for baby's body to break down.
  • Reduces the risk of urinary tract infections, inflammatory bowel disease, gastroenteritis, ear infections, and respiratory infections. For instance, formula-fed infants are three times more likely to suffer from ear infections than breastfed babies, and up to five times more likely to suffer from pneumonia and lower respiratory-tract infections.
  • Lessens the risk of SIDS. Although the connection is unclear, breastfed infants account for only half as many SIDS cases as formula-fed infants do.
  • Protects against diseases such as spinal meningitis, type 1 diabetes, and Hodgkin's lymphoma. You pass your baby immune factors and white blood cells through breast milk.
  • May make your baby smarter. Research is still inconclusive, but studies are pointing toward breastfed babies having higher IQ scores later in life, even when taking socioeconomic factors into consideration. The fatty acids in breast milk are thought to be the brain boosters.
  • Could help prevent obesity. Some studies show that breastfed infants are less likely to be obese later in life. The theory is that nursing mothers get in tune with signals that their baby is full, and don't overfeed.
  • Brings baby close too you. Bottlefed babies form bonds with their parents too, of course, but the skin-to-skin contact of breastfeeding is reassuring to a newborn.

Establishing a Breastfeeding Routine
Establishing a Breastfeeding Routine

Nursing doesn't only benefit your baby -- it can boost your health as well. Breastfeeding:

  • Lowers your risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Studies show that women who breastfeed have less risk of these cancers later in life.
  • Helps you lose pregnancy weight. Because milk production burns about 300 to 500 calories a day, nursing mothers tend to have an easier time losing pregnancy weight in a healthy way -- that is, slowly and without dieting.
  • Triggers your uterus to shrink back to prepregnancy size. In fact, in the first few weeks, you might feel mild contractions while you're nursing.
  • May lower your risk of osteoporosis. Research is still being done, but for now, it appears as if bone mineral density increases if you've been breastfeeding.
  • Can give you some natural birth-control protection. Granted, it's not as reliable as the pill or most other forms of birth control, but breastfeeding can keep you from ovulating if your baby is feeding day and night and is less than 6 months old.
  • Gives you closeness with your baby. Most moms who breastfeed cite this as the biggest benefit. Nursing is something special the two of you share. You and baby exchange looks, noises, and cuddles during a nursing session, and communicate love to each other.
  • Saves you money. Breastfeeding is essentially free. Even if you choose to buy an electric pump, a nursing pillow, and several nursing bras, you'll still only spend about half the cost of a year's supply of formula.

The American Academy of Pediatrics asks new mothers to try to breastfeed their baby for a year, for optimal health benefits. But you should know that whatever amount of time you can devote to breastfeeding is better than none. For instance:

  • Breastfeeding for those first days in the hospital gives your baby colostrum. This antibody-rich liquid is a major health booster to your newborn, who has an immature immune system. Formula can't replicate colostrum's unique composition.
  • Continuing during baby's first three months gives your baby's digestive system a break. The proteins in cow's milk formula as well as soy milk formula are tougher for an infant's body to break down than those in breast milk, so the longer you can put off the transition to formula, the better.
  • Breastfeeding while baby starts solids gives you a smooth transition. Baby won't go from all-milk meals straight to all baby cereal and mush -- the gradual switch will last from age 4 to 6 months through baby's first birthday. Continuing with breastfeeding while baby begins solids can cut down baby's risk of developing allergies, including food allergies. Using your breast milk to mix baby's cereal gives him the flavors he's used to, and breastfeeding first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening gives him a calming (and nutritious) ritual.
  • For as long as you can nurse, you and your baby will feel the bonding of breastfeeding. The skin-to-skin contact and cuddly closeness you both get from breastfeeding are among its biggest benefits. Dad can get bonding time with a bottle and so can you if you need to, but nursing for as long as you're comfortable gives you and baby a unique chance to get to know one another.

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics; La Leche League

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.