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What are the benefits of breastfeeding?

Dr. Tessie M. Larrieu, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

In this video, Tessie Larrieu, MD, in obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy Hospital describes how breast feeding can benefit both mother and baby.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.

Prof. Deborah Hunt
Critical Care Nursing Specialist

The health benefits of breastfeeding include benefits to the baby and the nursing mother. According to the American of Pediatrics the benefits to the nursing mother include:

  •  Positive feelings and emotional well-being
  •  Weight-loss
  •  Decreased post-partum bleeding
  •  Decreased risk of uterine and breast cancer
  •  More economical than formula feeding

Benefits to the baby include:

  • Provides all the calories and nutrients the baby needs
  • Helps the baby's immune system
  • Decreases risk of allergies
  • May lower the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
  • May lower the risk of breast cancer in later life
  • May decrease the incidence of obesity in later life

In summary breast feeding is beneficial to the mother and the baby and it is also more economical and does not require any special preparation. Although the nursing mom does require more calories and needs to drink plenty of water while breast feeding.

Dr. Dawn Marcus
Neurologist

Breastfeeding is terrific for you and your baby! There are numerous health benefits that occur with nursing your baby.

Breastfeeding will:

  • Give your baby optimal nutrition
  • Limit the baby's exposure to foreign proteins
  • Provide necessary hormones, growth factors and immune complexes
  • Provide important fatty acids to help with good brain development
  • Reduce the risk of infections in the baby
  • Help you and your baby bond with each other
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The benefits of breast milk are significant. In addition to providing the best possible nutrition for babies, it also boosts their immune systems, so they will have fewer respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Breastfeeding also reduces the incidence and severity of allergies, which can be especially important if there is a family history of allergies.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Although I realize that it's not an option for some people, I believe that breastfeeding is the best way to feed your child. Simply, your body knows exactly what your baby needs—and it concocts the perfect cocktail of nutrients in the form of your breast milk.

Breast milk is the ultimate nectar to the newborn. It contains protein, healthy fat, sugar, vitamins and minerals that have huge effects on the health and development of your child. Not only that, it actually changes composition as your baby grows, adapting to his or her growing needs. Breast milk protects against infection, allergies, asthma, SIDS and a raft of other diseases as well. And that's not even mentioning the benefits that breastfeeding has for you: It burns something on the order of 500 calories a day, helps to contract the uterus after delivery, and been has been shown to have protective effects on your bones and against certain cancers.

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There are many benefits for both moms and babies. Because breast milk contains all of the nutrients needed for your baby’s growth and development, breastfeeding is cost-efficient and convenient. For mothers, it leads to a faster postpartum recovery, quicker weight loss after birth, and a reduced risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers. For babies, breastfeeding can reduce the risk of ear infections, diarrhea or constipation, respiratory infections, asthma, diabetes, leukemia and allergies.

Dr. Deborah Mulligan, MD
Pediatrician

For the first six months of your baby’s life their nutrition comes from breast milk or formula. Everyone you know will have dozens of opinions about what is best. Without question, we all know that human breast milk is the gold standard for ideal nutrition of human babies. However, many babies have thrived and grown to happy, healthy adults as formula fed infants.

Breast feeding provides advantages for both Mom and her baby. Human breast milk contains all the ideal ingredients for growth of the human body; carries Mother’s antibodies to protect the new baby from various infections; reduces the severity of certain infections like stomach viruses and upper respiratory infections; is hypo-allergenic; contains products that stimulate brain development and reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and some forms of cancer later in life.

Breast milk is constantly changing based upon the baby’s needs: Breast milk for the newborn is different in some ways than that for the child that’s a few months old. For Mom, the advantages of breast-feeding include the fact that it is the easiest, cheapest way to feed the baby (no advance preparation or products required); a wonderful way to lose pregnancy weight and still eat without guilt; a recent study suggests that there may be a reduced risk of breast cancer; it is an absolutely wonderful way to feel a special closeness to your baby and can be a form of birth control. In terms of the last advantage, please do not count on breast feeding exclusively as a birth control method.

Breast milk is the perfect blend of nutrition for the optimal growth and development of your baby. The composition of breast milk changes as your baby grows to benefit your baby at each stage of development. Breast milk is easier for your baby to digest, and uncommon for your baby to allergic to compared with infant formula. The special antibodies in breast milk provide immune protection to keep your baby healthy, which is important since the baby’s own immune system is not yet fully developed. This means fewer illnesses such as ear infections, vomiting, diarrhea and pneumonias. Since breastfed babies are sick less often, there are fewer germs to be shared with other family members. In addition to decreased infection, breastfeeding has also been found to decrease the risk of childhood diseases such as allergies, asthma, diabetes and obesity. The rate of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is also reduced in breastfed infants. Besides the medical benefits of breastfeeding, there are also mental and emotional benefits. Breastfeeding also enhances bonding because of the close skin to skin contact. For these reasons, most moms who breastfeed their first baby choose to breastfeed their future children.

I nursed my three children for four years each. At the beginning, it's often because they're little and growing quickly so there is the nutritional and emotional bonding that occurs. As they got older, I still found it comforting for my toddlers to be nursed to sleep (not always but often), and to come to me for a suckling if they were hurting. We never wanted to use a pacifier or suck their thumbs and it worked. They never did. However, having said that, when mom is done, you need to put your foot down and say enough is enough. I had to bribe my daughter with dress-up clothes to get her to want to stop. But I would do it all over again. Those were wonderful years. My two youngest have wonderful memories of snuggling and nursing with their mom. Also, I might add, all three of our children (ages 10, 16 and 19 now) are very independent.

Consider these statistics: Compared with babies who are not breast-fed, babies who are breast-fed for three to five months are a third less likely to be obese at age 6; those breastfed for six months are 43 percent less likely to be obese at age 6; and those breastfed for more than a year are 72 percent less likely to be obese at age 6. Some studies point to the presence of leptin, a satiety hormone, in breast milk, while certain researchers theorize that the modulations in a mother’s milk—due to variety in her diet— helps babies develop an appetite that’s more attuned to taste and satiety signals.

Babies also enjoy a range of health-protective benefits from breast milk, which make them less vulnerable to certain allergies, ear infections, pneumonia and meningitis. They may also be better protected from heart disease and diabetes down the road. Researchers in Scotland found that children who were fed formula as babies were more likely to develop higher cholesterol and glucose levels later in life, raising their risk of heart disease and diabetes, respectively.

Breastfeeding might also make your baby smarter, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which linked the duration of breast-feeding with significantly higher scores on various verbal and intelligence tests later in life. In addition, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breast-feeding helps mothers return to their pre-pregnancy weight faster, because it burns more calories. Other benefits to the mom include a reduced risk of ovarian cancer, osteoporosis prevention and a lower incidence of premenopausal breast cancer.

But breastfeeding mothers need to be sure to take precautions, such as drinking lots of fluids and avoiding imported or unpasteurized soft cheeses, cigarette smoke, alcohol, and large or longer-living fish (which tend to be high in mercury) like tuna, swordfish, shark and orange roughy. The Institute of Medicine’s (IOM ) discussion of energy requirements for lactating mothers estimates a 4 to 5 percent (80 to 100 calories for a 2,000 calorie diet) increase in a woman’s metabolic rate during milk production, much lower than the 200 to 500 calories recommended in the early 1990s and the 700 to 1,000 before that. Currently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends lactating women stick with the same number of calories they were consuming before their pregnancy as a strategy for weight loss after giving birth.

Studies find that breastfed infants have a reduced risk of infections, including ear and respiratory infections, diarrhea, meningitis, sudden infant death syndrome, appendicitis and allergies. Also, children and adults breastfed as infants are less likely to develop childhood lymphoma, leukemia and multiple sclerosis, as well as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, childhood obesity, overbites and celiac disease.

Plus, human milk enhances cognitive development, antibody response to routine immunizations and a child's visual development. Breast milk continues to provide immune system benefits to infants well beyond two years.

Breastfeeding also has benefits for the mother, with studies finding that women who breastfeed may have a lower risk of premenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer and poor bone mineral density.

Experts recommend six months of exclusive breastfeeding, which provides vital nutrients to your infant that change and develop as he or she gets older. Studies show that infants who are breastfed have less frequent instances of otitis media (ear infections), gastroenteritis, atopic dermatitis (eczema), lower respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). There are also links to obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes and asthma for children who were not breastfed in infancy.

There are many benefits of breastfeeding to both the infant and the mother. Not only is it an ideal source of nutrition for the growing infant, breastfeeding also protects the infant against ear infections, respiratory infections, gastrointestinal diseases, eczema, allergies, asthma, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome. Advantages to the mother include the convenience of breastfeeding, cost savings compared with formula feeding, a unique bonding experience and more rapid recovery from childbirth. Postpartum weight loss may also be easier for the breastfeeding mother, as 400 to 500 calories per day are needed to produce breast milk.

The Journal of the American Dental Association released an article in February 2013 outlining the benefits of breastfeeding on dental health. Though no controlled studies have been released, evidence suggests that breastfed babies may develop a better bite (or occlusion). Other documented benefits of breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months are decreased ear infections and less gastrointestinal problems, among other things. Mothers who breastfeed thier babies should make sure that they wipe down gums and teeth when they are finished—especially at bedtime when the milk can sit on the teeth unswallowed for longer periods of time.

Dr. Alan Greene, MD
Pediatrician

It’s no surprise—human milk is the ideal nutrition for human babies. In addition to the nutritional benefits, we’re learning more all the time about the immunization benefits of breast milk. Breast milk provides both general and situation-specific protection. There is now strong evidence that in the United States, breastfeeding cuts the risk of acute infections (such as ear infections) during infancy by two-thirds, and wheezing from any cause in the first six months by half.

Beyond this, breastfeeding appears to confer intellectual advantages. A large meta-analysis of studies taking into account other possible explanations concluded that breastfeeding tends to enhance cognitive development.

Breastfeeding can be very rewarding for mother and child, but it it also often difficult or uncomfortable for the first week or two. Get pointers, feedback and encouragement from a lactation consultant to help with getting started and with troubleshooting along the way.

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In the short term, babies who receive mother’s milk have:

  • 23 percent fewer ear infections
  • 27 percent fewer lung and respiratory infections during the months they are breastfed
  • 72 percent fewer hospitalizations for breathing problems for those who receive mother’s milk for more than four months
  • 64 percent fewer episodes of vomiting
  • 53 percent fewer hospital admissions related to diarrhea
  • 30 percent fewer hospitalizations during the months a baby receives mother’s milk
  • a smaller chance of death from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

In the long term, babies who receive mother’s milk:

  • are less likely to develop childhood leukemia
  • are less likely to develop asthma in childhood
  • are less likely to develop type 1 or type 2 diabetes
  • are less likely to develop atopic dermatitis, a chronic, itchy skin condition
  • are less likely to be overweight or obese as adults
  • have fewer allergies overall
  • maintain healthier blood pressure and cholesterol levels throughout life
  • show higher intelligence

Breastfeeding is a bonding, tender experience. It's neither embarrassing nor a competitive event, and it gives your child many important health benefits. Breast milk provides good gut bacteria to strengthen immunity, especially if you take a probiotic capsule twice a day (seems good gut bacteria migrate to breast milk). Breast milk also supplies the right balance of carbs, protein and brain-boosting fatty acids, plus digestive proteins, minerals, vitamins, hormones and disease-fighting antibodies. Children who nurse dodge allergies, eczema, digestive woes and respiratory diseases—not to mention diabetes, obesity, SIDS and tooth decay.

Breast feeding provides the best nutrition for your child. Breast feeding decreases your baby's risk of ear infections, respiratory illnesses, sudden infant death syndrome, obesity and hypertension. Breast feeding also provides mom with benefits including aiding weight loss after delivery, and reducing risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Annette Duncan
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Breastfeeding is the most complete and perfect "formula" for your baby. Breast milk is amazing and will alter automatically depending on what you baby needs. Also antibodies will be passed to your baby depending on what you are exposed to, which is a fill-in immune system for your baby until they are old enough to fight illness on their own. 

The bonding aspect of breastfeeding is wonderful—it is a quiet, calm, happy and re-assuring time for both mommy and baby. 

There are many different recommendations out there on how long to nurse your baby—generally if you can nurse for at least the first 6 months there are countless benefits seen as your child gets older, but up to 1 year old when they can transition to milk and are more comfortable with solid foods is what I would recommend. 

Be sure to drink plenty of fluids while breastfeeding, I recommend having water by you when you nurse and take at least two to three large drinks of water while nursing, it will help the let-down reflex by assuring your body that you have a good supply of fluids. Drink at least 3 liters of water per day while breastfeeding and be sure to increase your calorie intake to insure your body doesn't lose necessary nutrients to give to the baby (extra emphasis on calcium and protein).

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.