Reduced ear infections? Check. Lower risk for asthma? Yup. Bump in IQ? Sure. Breastfeeding your baby brings all these benefits—plus a whole lot more.
Breast milk is nature's perfect baby food. It contains immunity-boosting antibodies and healthy enzymes that scientists have yet to replicate. Here are some advantages of breast milk for babies:
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 is also because breast milk is so easy for your baby's body to break down.
Reduces the risk of viruses, urinary tract infections, inflammatory bowel disease, gastroenteritis, ear infections, and respiratory infections. "The incidences of pneumonia, colds, and viruses are reduced among breastfed babies," says infant-nutrition expert Ruth A. Lawrence, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and OB-GYN at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, N.Y., and the author of Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession (Elsevier-Mosby). Additionally, 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.
Makes vaccines more effective. Research shows that breastfed babies have a better antibody response to vaccines than formula-fed babies.
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. "You have to read your baby's 'satiety cues' a little better, because unlike with a bottle, you can't see how much he's eaten. You have to rely on your own instincts and your baby's behavior to know when your baby is full," says Heather Kelly, an international board-certified lactation consultant in New York City and a member of the Bravado Breastfeeding Information Council's advisory board.
Brings baby close to you. Bottlefed babies form bonds with their parents too, of course, but the skin-to-skin contact of breastfeeding is reassuring to a newborn.
The benefits of breastfeeding don’t only extend to your baby. It turns out that breastfeeding can boost your health as well, since it:
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. "Breast milk contains 20 calories per ounce. If you feed your baby 20 ounces a day, that's 400 calories you've swept out of your body," says Lawrence.
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. According to Lawrence, women who breastfeed have a lower risk of postmenopausal osteoporosis. "When a woman is pregnant and lactating, her body absorbs calcium much more efficiently," Lawrence explains. "So while some bones, particularly those in the spine and hips, may be a bit less dense at weaning, six months later, they are more dense than before pregnancy."
Heals your body after delivery. The oxytocin released when your baby nurses helps your uterus contract, reducing post-delivery blood loss. Plus, breastfeeding will help your uterus return to its normal size more quickly—at about six weeks postpartum, compared with 10 weeks if you don't breastfeed.
Delays menstruation. Breastfeeding your baby around the clock—no bottles or formula—will delay ovulation, which means delayed menstruation. "Breastfeeding causes the release of prolactin, which keeps estrogen and progesterone at bay so ovulation isn't triggered," Kelly explains. "When your prolactin levels drop, those two hormones can kick back in, which means ovulation—and, hence, menstruation—occurs." Even if you do breastfeed exclusively, your prolactin levels will eventually drop over the course of several months. Many moms who solely nurse will see their periods return between six and eight months after delivery, Kelly adds; others don't for a full year.
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 you follow these guidelines: Your period must not have resumed; you must breastfeed at least every four hours around the clock; you must not give your baby any pacifiers, bottles or formula; and you must be less than six months postpartum. According to Kelly, nighttime feedings are the most important to the "lactation amenorrhea method," so do not let your baby (or yourself ) sleep through a feeding. "Going long stretches at night without nursing seems to be directly responsible for the return of ovulation," she says. Prematurely sleep training your baby can also hasten ovulation.
Gives you closeness with your baby. Most moms cite this as the biggest benefit of breastfeeding. 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. "It's empowering as a new mother to see your baby grow and thrive on your breast milk alone," Lawrence says.
Saves you money. Breastfeeding is essentially free. According to La Leche League International, the cost of formula can range anywhere from $134 to $491 per month. That's $1,608 to $5,892 in one year! 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 cost savings extend beyond your household, too. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, the United States would save about $13 billion per year in medical costs if 90 percent of U.S. families breastfed their newborns for at least six months.
Gives you less time off work. Your baby will be ill less often, so that means fewer sick days for you.
Cultivates friendships. "Breastfeeding helps cultivate relationships with other moms," Kelly says. Whether it's talking about parenting styles, nighttime feedings or engorgement, nursing allows women to forge positive postpartum relationships. Adds Kelly, "Women are supposed to be sitting together, nursing and taking care of babies."
Makes you more eco-friendly. Dairy cows, which are raised in part to make infant formula, are a significant contributor to global warming: Their belching, manure and flatulence (really!) spew enormous amounts of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
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. Formula isn't able to change its constitution, but your breast milk morphs to meet your baby's changing needs. Colostrum—the "premilk" that comes in after you deliver—is chock-full of antibodies to protect your newborn baby. "It's also higher in protein and lower in sugar than 'full' milk, so even a small amount can hold off your baby's hunger," says Heather Kelly, an international board-certified lactation consultant in New York City and a member of the Bravado Breastfeeding Information Council's advisory board.
Continuing during baby's first three months gives your baby's digestive system a break. When your full milk comes in (usually three to four days after delivery), it is higher in both sugar and volume than colostrum—again, just what your baby requires. "He needs a lot of calories and frequent feedings to fuel his rapid growth," Kelly explains. "Your mature milk is designed to be digested quickly so he'll eat often." 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 is a major breastfeeding benefit. 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