We’ve all heard that ‘breast is best’ for infant feeding, but what sets breastfeeding apart? Nursing is the normal way to feed a baby, but it’s so much more than just food. It’s perfect nutrition along with comfort, warmth, touch and connection all in one. Beyond the embodied experience of holding your baby to your breast, breastfeeding – and breastmilk – provide unmatched nutrition and protection for your baby for his or her whole life. Consider these 25 great reasons to breastfeed your baby:
- You’re made for breastfeeding. Your body set the stage for breastfeeding way back at puberty, and then the hormones of pregnancy helped your breasts grow and develop in order to nourish a baby. Your body is ready for this at birth – colostrum is made in the final months of pregnancy (you may even notice it leak in the last weeks before birth), your nipples and areola get darker, and you veins may seem more prominent. You may notice increased breast size and tenderness. All of these are signs that your body is getting ready for the work it expects to do.
- Your baby expects it. Babies are born knowing how to feed. If you place a newborn prone on a mother’s abdomen so that they are skin to skin, baby will use his reflexes to scoot himself up to breast level, bob his head around find the best place to latch, and will self attach and suckle. Sometimes birth interventions get in the way of this happening – babies are sleepier if moms have had pain medication, for example – but with a little guidance, your baby will be able to nurse effortlessly.
- Breastfeeding gets your body back to normal after pregnancy. One of the hormones of milk production, oxytocin causes smooth muscles to contract. This is the mechanism behind milk ejection, but it is also leads to uterine contractions. When your uterus contracts in the hours after birth, your bleeding is lessened and your recovery is started. And breastfeeding burns calories – about 500 per day or more – so if you’re not overeating, you may lose weight easily.
- You are building your baby’s immune system. Think of breastmilk as your baby’s first vaccine. The immune properties in colostrum protect your infant’s immature gastrointestinal tract, the site of your baby’s growing immune system. Your baby’s gut is not fully ‘closed’ at birth, meaning that pathogens can more easily pass into baby’s bloodstream. Colostrum not only provides a barrier that keeps this from happening, but also adds immune factors that fight pathogens before they have the chance to make baby sick. Your breastmilk will protect your baby until his own system is fully functioning – which doesn’t typically happen until age two or three.
- Your baby will be protected against specific illnesses. The risk of respiratory tract infections, ear infections and gastrointestinal illnesses is greatly reduced when a baby is breastfed. Exclusive breastfeeding for six months or more reduces the risk of pneumonia. These illnesses account for many lost workdays for parents, and a financial burden on both parents and society.
- Sometimes everyone in the house gets sick, except for the breastfeeding baby. Your body and your baby’s body exist in synchrony when you’re breastfeeding, which provides a unique feedback system when it comes to illnesses. As soon as you are exposed to germs, your body starts to produce immunities to that illness. These are passed to your baby through your breastmilk. At the same time, if your baby is exposed to an illness, your body receives a chemical message while your infant is feeding (through his saliva, most likely) telling your body he needs you to create particular immunities for him.
- If your baby does get sick, breastmilk is the best. Aside from the immune factors, because it’s easy to digest, breastmilk is sometimes tolerated by babies with illnesses of the GI tract, such as influenza or diarrhea. Try to nurse as often as your baby is willing if he’s sick, and don’t be alarmed if some of the breastmilk comes back up. Your baby will still absorb many of the nutrients.
- Your risk for chronic disease is lower as a breastfeeding mother. Mothers who nurse their babies are at decreased risk for breast cancer, heart disease, ovarian and uterine cancer, and more. In fact, the benefits are cumulative for many of these diseases – the longer you breastfeed, the lower your risk. If you’ve already been diagnosed with diabetes or endometriosis, breastfeeding may help slow the progression of the disease.
- Your baby has a lower chance of becoming obese later in life. Research shows that when a baby is breastfed, he has a less likely chance of obesity as teens and adults – some studies put this reduction of risk at 15% to 30%. The duration of breastfeeding seems to matter, too. The longer a baby is breastfed, the greater the protection. Experts believe that breastfed infants are more likely to learn better management of hunger and satiety cues, and this has lasting impacts on body composition.
- Your baby may like a wider variety of foods when you start solids. Breastmilk takes on flavors from a mom’s diet. If the mother is eating a wide variety of foods, the child is more likely to eat novel foods when starting solids and beyond into childhood.
- You’re building your baby’s brain. Despite the fact that confounding variables and conflicting studies make comparisons difficult, many studies have found that breastfeeding provides for optimal brain development. For example, one study found that the longer the duration of breastfeeding and the less supplementation, the better the language skills at age three and the higher the IQ at age seven. In addition, the fats in breastmilk aid in the myelination of the nerves – a process that improves the transfer of messages throughout the brain and the body.
- Breastmilk changes to meet your baby’s needs. Your milk is different on day one than it is on day ten, and is different again in month ten. It is constantly changing to meet your baby’s nutritional needs. Your milk will change during a single feeding, and between feedings throughout the day as well (especially with regard to fat content). But what remains the same is that it always has just the right ingredients for a human baby. Cow’s milk – which is the basis for most infant formulas – is appropriate for baby cows, who need to grow to independence faster and don’t need the same level of cognitive development. But human milk has just the right proportion of fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals to keep a human growing at just the right rate.
- No need to worry about manufacturing recalls or missing ingredients. Occasionally, artificial baby milks will be recalled due to contamination or to an imbalance in the ingredients. But not breastmilk. Even if your diet is less-than-ideal, your body will take what it needs from you to make milk with the right proportion of all ingredients needed for your baby to thrive. Some people may worry about contamination from environmental sources. But research shows that breastfeeding is still best for your baby.
- Breastfeeding protects against allergies and asthma. While some sources claim that confounding variable and poor study design show no effect, other studies have concluded that breastfeeding confers considerable protective advantage over artificial feeding when it comes to asthma, eczema and atopic dermatitis. Keep in mind that cow’s milk and soy – the basis for the majority of formulas on the market – are common allergens.
- Breastfed babies develop good hand eye coordination. Whether from improved cognitive development due to the ingredients of breastmilk, or the physical aspects of feeding at the breast (changing sides/breasts so that both sides of the body learn spatial relations), breastfed babies seem to develop better hand eye coordination sooner than their formula fed counterparts.
- Breastfed babies have optimum oral development. The act of suckling at the breast is the way infants were meant to feed. Because it works different muscles and requires different use of the tongue and mouth than bottle-feeding, oral development is at its peak for breastfed babies. As your baby grows, he will likely have fewer cavities, better speech development, and less need for braces later in life to correct bite problems.
- You’ll be a better employee. For mothers employed outside the home, if your baby isn’t sick very often, you’re unlikely to miss work as much. In fact, even when accounting for giving moms break time to pump breastmilk, supporting breastfeeding working moms makes sense for employers in lower healthcare costs, lower turnover and retraining expenses, and higher employee productivity.
- Those breastfeeding hormones… Prolactin, the milk-making hormone, is also known as the mothering hormone. It gives you that sleepy, protective feeling when nursing. Oxytocin, the milk-ejection hormone, is also known as the hormone of love. It is released in pulses when breastfeeding, but is also released during orgasm, skin-to-skin touching, and sharing a meal with a loved one. These same substances are released in baby’s body during feeding, too. This hormonal blueprint connects mom and baby, and makes both feel good.
- Breastfeeding acts as a pain reliever for baby. What better way to help your baby through painful teething or vaccinations than to breastfeed? Studies show that babies who are breastfed during painful procedures experience less crying and fewer changes in heart rate.
- Everyone gets more sleep when a baby is breastfed. Since mom doesn’t have to get up to prepare a bottle, and nobody needs to calm a crying baby while the bottle is readied, baby is likely to get to the breast faster and with less fuss, which helps both mom and baby fall back to sleep faster. Even if dad is helping with changing and burping during the night, he gets to go back to sleep sooner, too.
- SIDS risk is lowered for babies who are breastfed. While researchers don’t know the exact mechanism, breastfeeding is one protective step you can take against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Breastfed babies spend more time in lighter sleep and seem to have more frequent arousals during the night keeping them protected from adverse events.
- Fewer periods for mom. Because breastfeeding suppresses ovulation, some women don’t have regular menstrual periods until their baby has weaned. Fewer periods means less money spent on menstrual supplies, less waste from used materials, and a lower chance of anemia (from less blood loss) for mom.
- You don’t need anything extra to breastfeed. It might be nice to have a breast pump or some nursing bras, and some moms decide they need bottles / nipples (teats) or specialty breastfeeding clothing. But ultimately, all you need is a baby and your breasts, and you’re good to go. Not to mention that breastmilk is free – no need to spend US$1000 or more on formula.
- Traveling is easier. No need to pack bottles, cleaning supplies, formula, and more. No need to worry about where to get clean water or how to heat a bottle. Breastfed babies are much more portable – mom, baby, a couple of diapers, and you’re ready. Flying somewhere? Breastfeeding during takeoff and landing helps babies manage the changes in pressure more comfortably. Traveling by car? Stopping more often to feed may be the biggest hurdle you face.
- It’s always the right temperature. And in cute packaging. What more could you ask for? The perfect combination of nutrients, served at just the right amount and temperature straight from the tap without any added bowls, spoons, bottles or cups needed. And the soft, warm packaging is a beautiful bonus.
Video: Breastfeeding Benefits And Beyond
What other ‘benefits’ can you add to the list?