Benefits of breastfeeding
Over the past 30 years, there has been a large amount of research relating to breastfeeding, which points to significant health outcomes for mothers and babies, both short and long term health advantages.
Because of the substantial amount of research and knowledge around breastfeeding, the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively for six months, without water or solids, but then continuing with breast milk alongside solids for up to two years of age and beyond.
All countries are being encouraged to adopt these recommendations.
Breast milk is a living substance, just like blood.
Every component within breast milk has a specific function, and all are important. We know that every mammal produces different milk for their offspring, relating to the kind of animal that they are.
For instance, cow’s milk, which is the basis of formula milk, is made by cows specifically for their calves.
So know that your breast milk is made by your body as the perfect milk for your baby and is easily digestible and nutritionally adequate and has everything in the right proportions.
Many studies over the last few years show that where babies have not had breast milk are:
- 5x more likely to be hospitalized with gastroenteritis
- 5x more likely to be hospitalized with urinary tract infections
- have an increased risk of chest infections and ear infections
When we look at these hospitalization figures across the country, it appears that in the areas where breastfeeding rates are higher, the admissions into hospitals with these conditions are lower.
We also know that breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and reduces the risk of childhood leukemia.
It can even reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in the future, and type one and two diabetes.
One of the most amazing, protective mechanisms that we know about is that breast milk provides antibodies against illness.
If your baby gets an infection, and you carry on breastfeeding, your breast will make specific antibodies against that particular infection.
Those antibodies will then enter the breast milk, and help your baby to get better. These antibodies will also help to reduce your own risk of getting that infection as well!
Also, if you are ill, it’s essential to carry on breastfeeding so that your body will make antibodies against the infection that you have.
Those antibodies will go into your breast milk, and help your baby to fight off that potential infection too.
If your baby does happen to pick up the infection you have, he’s likely to get better faster.
This protective mechanism will carry on for as long as you give your baby breast milk – this could be days, weeks, or years.
That protective mechanism doesn’t just stop at an arbitrary age.
The latest research also shows that in the earliest days after birth, millions of bacteria make their home in your baby’s body – in the skin, mouth, and especially the gut, which is natural, normal, and beneficial for your baby.
Breast milk also seems to be rich in good bacteria when it comes directly from the mother’s breast, although pumped milk is still greatly beneficial.
Scientists have also discovered that breast milk also contributes significantly to your baby’s natural microbiome, which means that it has enormous amounts of good bacteria that colonize your baby’s gut.
The healthy bacteria will help set to build up his growing immune system and metabolism.
We seem to be in the middle of an obesity epidemic – we see this on the news, with many people talking about it in health circles, and wondering what strategies to use in dealing with the epidemic.
There are hundreds of studies that point to the fact that your baby is much less likely to become obese if breastfed.
There have been some amazing, very recent studies that point to the importance of the early attachment that breastfeeding facilitates between mothers and their babies.
Breastfeeding, with all the added closeness and responsiveness, which it affords, helps to develop your baby’s brain and increases your baby’s assurance and confidence.
There are also studies suggesting that babies may become more secure adults in the future because of their early breastfeeding experience.
Many studies about early brain development are pointing to better cognitive outcomes later on, and better mental performance and mental health.
So however you’re feeding your baby, that close contact and responsiveness are vital.
As your baby grows and changes, your breast milk composition also changes to meet his needs at that particular time.
Even throughout a single day, the composition of your breast milk can change too, showing that it is a very adaptable substance.
As we consider the benefits of breastmilk, we need to acknowledge that formula milk, which is modified cows’ milk, and has been through a specific pasteurization process, is not able to offer any of that protection.
So what about health benefits for you as a breastfeeding mother?
Breastfeeding can significantly reduce your risk of breast cancer, even where there is a family history.
It can also reduce your risk of other cancers, too, like ovarian or womb cancer.
It can reduce the risk of osteoporosis, which causes bone fractures as it seems breastfeeding causes your bone density to increase.
Once you finish the period of lactation, the bone density appears to become stronger!
The early days of breastfeeding will help your uterus to contract back to its normal size again, and this prevents what is called in medical terms, postpartum hemorrhage.
It can, therefore, stop you from having a significant loss of blood following the birth afterward.
Also, when breastfeeding, there is a temporary lack of menstrual periods due to the hormones involved. Because of this, your risk of anemia reduces.
Another positive thing to know is that breastfeeding can burn an extra three hundred to five hundred calories a day, just in the manufacturing of milk.
If you are eating normally, it stands to reason that you have a far greater chance of getting back to your pre-pregnancy weight.
If you had gestational diabetes while pregnant, breastfeeding could help to stabilize your blood sugar levels as well as with weight loss, and it may even prevent you from becoming diabetic in the future.
A study in 2016 involving Korean women (who tend to breastfeed for at least twelve months) showed a reduction in the risk of what is called metabolic syndrome.
These women showed a decreased risk of high blood pressure, reduced risk of high blood sugar levels, and lower levels of cholesterol, therefore preventing their risk of diabetes or stroke or heart attack.
While all this knowledge is fantastic to have, it must be stated that there can be so many potential barriers to breastfeeding and things that can undermine your efforts to breastfeed.
However, be encouraged that many women are becoming more knowledgeable and seeking out skilled support.
Also, health professionals have so much more knowledge now than in recent years to help provide this support, but it is worth learning as much as you can yourself from good, research-based reliable sources.
Review dates, references & further resources
Version 1.1 published in March 2019. Next review date: Jan 2022
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