Margaret Aker and Caitlin Kennedy, B.A.
Updated June 2013
For years evidence has been mounting about the health advantages of breastfeeding for both mother and child. From a reduced risk of obesity to an increased resistance to disease, study after study shows that breast milk is the ideal food for your newborn child. Can you believe it? Our own bodies produce the best food we can give our children? And for free!
How is infant formula different from breast milk?
Infant formula is an imitation of human breast milk. It is made by blending various dairy substitutes. Formula, however, can never exactly duplicate a mother’s breast milk. Formula is more difficult for a baby to digest, it lacks antibodies that help infants fight off diseases and infections, and it doesn’t change to accommodate a growing baby’s nutritional needs the way natural breast milk does.
What are the health benefits of breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding has significant health benefits for you and your child. Exclusive breastfeeding (meaning no formula or other food) during at least the first three months offers the greatest benefits, although some breastfeeding is better than none.
Benefits for your child
Protection from Disease: Breastfed infants have lower rates of allergies, infections, and respiratory disorders, such as asthma. They also have lower rates of diseases such as diabetes and leukemia.
- Antibodies that protect infants from disease are transferred from a mother to her child through breast milk.
- Infant formula can’t provide these antibodies. Breast milk is the first example of “personalized medicine.”
Defense against Obesity: Breastfeeding decreases the likelihood that an infant will become overweight or obese.1
- Breastfeeding is better for teaching infants how to stop eating when they are full. While parents sometimes find it reassuring that they can tell by looking at the bottle how much food their baby has consumed, they also tend to overfeed when bottle-feeding. Instead of looking for cues from their baby showing that he or she is full, parents look at whether the bottle is empty or not.
- Breast milk contains the flavors of the food the mother is eating. It therefore exposes infants to a wider range of tastes at an early age. This may lead the infant to later accept a well-balanced diet containing a wide variety of foods.
- Breastfed babies are less likely to become obese with the introduction of solid food. A study found that among babies who had been breastfed for at least 4 months, the timing of solid food was not linked with obesity at age 3.This was not true for formula-fed babies who were much more sensitive to the introduction of solid food.Babies who were never breastfed or were breastfed for less than 4 months and had been introduced to solid food before 4 months of age were 6 times more likely to be obese by age 3 than formula-fed babies who had been introduced to solid food between 4-5 months.2
It’s not clear why the timing of solid food was linked with obesity risk among formula-fed babies, but it may be that mothers who use formula are less tuned in to their baby’s hunger cues. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing solid foods at 4 to 6 months, and not before.3
Brain Benefits: Breastfeeding helps babies’ brains grow and develop. A 2013 study by researchers at Brown University found that children who had been exclusively breastfed had more development in certain areas of their brains than children just like them (age, sex, health, mother’s age, mother’s education, and income) who were given only formula or who were given formula sometimes and breast milk sometimes. The children who were breastfed performed better on tasks that required planning, decision-making, expressing and managing emotions, and language. The children who had been breast-fed for over a year had the most brain growth and scored the highest.4
Benefits for you
Protection from Disease: Breastfeeding reduces the mother’s risk of certain types of cancers.
- Women who breastfed for 18 months or longer are much less likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who never breastfed.5
- The risk of breast cancer decreases the longer a woman breastfeeds her child. Research now shows that this decreased risk has less to do with the number of children a woman breastfeeds and more to do with the length of time she spent breastfeeding each child.6
- Many experts believe these benefits are the result of the delayed return of a woman’s period while she is breastfeeding. Other factors may play a part as well.
Weight loss after Pregnancy and Childbirth:
- Breastfeeding helps women return to their pre-pregnancy weight. Exclusively breastfeeding is said to burn up to 600 calories a day!7 That’s about the same number of calories burned by running 6 miles or doing the Stair Master for about an hour. (Of course, breastfeeding will only help you lose weight if you don’t eat 600 calories more each day.)
- Breastfeeding may help to delay the return of your period. The hormones that trigger the production of breast milk may also delay the release of hormones that bring on your period. This does not always happen, however, so if you don’t want to have another child anytime soon you should not be rely on breastfeeding as a form of contraception. For more information about safe contraceptives to use while breastfeeding check out our “Guide to Selecting Safe Medical Contraception.”
Benefits for you both: Building a close relationship between mother and child.
- Women who breastfeed often have more physical contact (skin-to-skin) with their babies than women who bottle feed. This kind of close contact promotes closeness between mother and child. With breastfeeding, nothing comes between a baby and mother.
- Feeding-whether by breast or bottle-is an important demonstration of love and an opportunity for bonding. One of the advantages of bottle-feeding is that others can participate in the duty and pleasure of feeding, but that can sometimes be a drawback. Because it is easy to pass the baby to someone else for feedings, and even to teach the infant to hold the bottle and feed himself, a mother who is rushing to get everything done may miss out on some of the time she would otherwise spend bonding with her child.
The health benefits of breast milk are unmatched by baby formula. So why would any mother not breastfeed?
Given the multiple benefits mentioned above, there are many reasons why it is a good idea for you to breastfeed your child. It is important to keep in mind, however, that there are also many reasons why a mother might not be able to or might choose not to breastfeed. Every mother’s situation is different. It does not make you a bad mother if you don’t breastfeed your child.
In addition to the physical inability of some women to produce sufficient milk, some reasons that women may be unable or unwilling to breastfeed include:
- Cost: Breast milk is free, but most newborn babies request around 8-12 feedings each day. So, committing to exclusively breastfeed may entail taking leave from a job to stay at home with the child, go home for feeding breaks, or pump breast milk. While this type of commitment may be feasible for women whose employers offer great maternity-leave benefits or who do not work outside the home, for many it isn’t.
- Disease: Many women are concerned about breastfeeding when they are sick, have an infection, or are taking a medication. For most illnesses and many medications, it is safe for the mother to continue to breastfeed as normal. Women infected with HIV/AIDS, active tuberculosis, or undergoing certain medical treatments, however, may be required to stop breastfeeding temporarily or permanently. The best thing to do if you are concerned about whether or not breastfeeding is safe for you and your child is to ask your doctor.
- Food Habits: You are what you eat, and breast milk is essentially what a mother eats. It is important, therefore, that a breastfeeding mother eat well in order to provide good nutrition to her child. Mothers who are not likely to eat a balanced diet or limit their intake of caffeine and alcohol might find it in the best interest of their child to refrain from breastfeeding. No mother using illegal drugs should breastfeed. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about whether your lifestyle is compatible with breastfeeding your child.
- Discomfort: Some women simply do not enjoy breastfeeding. They may find it uncomfortable or frustrating. This is not a reflection on the type of mother that you are. Since the pain and difficulty almost always goes away, women are encouraged to try breastfeeding for at least 14 days before giving up.8
A mother who is having trouble should consider asking her doctor where she can get free advice or help on breastfeeding. However, it is important that each mother considers her own needs when deciding whether to breastfeed. If a mother finds the breastfeeding experience incredibly unpleasant, it will only get in the way of mother-child bonding. Try to be patient, but don’t be a martyr.
When it is possible, breastfeeding is the ideal way to feed your child. Breast milk is naturally manufactured to protect and nourish a growing infant, as well as to help your body bounce back from pregnancy-and, it does a great job at both of these tasks. It is amazing that women’s bodies have outdone the efforts of thousands of scientists and food manufacturers to create the perfect food for infants!
Breastfeeding is not a feasible option for every mother. The multiple benefits of breastfeeding for you and your child, however, make it worthwhile to try to make breastfeeding work. And remember, if you need to supplement breastfeeding with bottles while you’re at work or sometimes in the middle of the night so you can get more sleep, that kind of compromise will still give you and your baby most of the benefits of breastfeeding.
In the end, each mother must personally decide the best way to feed her child. While the health benefits of breast milk are great, there are many other factors that will determine if breastfeeding is right for you and your family.
- Breastfeeding: The First Defense Against Obesity. California WIC Association and the UC Davis Human Lactation Center. (2006 March). http://www.calwic.org/docs/reports/bf_paper1.pdf. ▲
- Huh SY, Rifas-Shiman SL, Taveras EM, et al. Timing of Solid Food Introduction and Risk of Obesity in Preschool-Aged Children. Pediatrics. 2011;127(3):e544-e551. ▲
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Healthy Children. Switching to Solid Foods. ▲
- Deoni S, Dean D, Piryatinksy I, O’Muircheartaigh J, Waskiewicz N, Lehman K, Han M, & Dirks H. Breastfeeding and early white matter development: A cross-sectional study. NeuroImage. 2013: published online. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.05.090 ▲
- Danforth K, Tworoger S, Hecht J, et al. Breastfeeding and Risk of Ovarian Cancer in Two Perspective Cohorts. Cancer Causes & Control. 2007;18(5):517-523. ▲
- Chang-Claude J, Eby N, Kiechle M, et al. Breastfeeding and Breast Cancer Risk by Age 50 among Women in Germany. Cancer Causes & Control. 2000;11(8):687-695. ▲
- Kramer F. Breastfeeding reduces maternal lower body fat. Journal of American Dietician Association. 1993:429-33. ▲
- Love S, Lindsey K. Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. Perseus Publishing. 3rd Ed, (2000), pp. 33-50. ▲