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Should I breastfeed my baby? How many months should I nurse? Is breast milk that much better than formula? Is it worth it if I go back to work? If I didn’t breastfeed my last baby, should I try with this baby? Of the countless choices you face before your baby arrives, the choice to breastfeed is one of the most important! How to nourish your baby is a very personal decision that is yours to make. It impacts your baby’s health, your health, and more! Let’s dive into understanding why breast is best and the vast benefits of breastfeeding.
Table of contents
- Breastfeeding Has Superpowers
- Benefits of Breastfeeding: A Transition from the Womb to the World
- Benefits of Breastfeeding: Recommended By All
- Benefits of Breastfeeding: Your Breast Milk Cannot Be Duplicated
- Benefits of Breastfeeding: The List Goes On and On!
- Special Situations
- You Can Do It!
Breastfeeding Has Superpowers
Before we list the endless benefits of breastfeeding for mom and baby, it is important to first understand the superpowers of breastfeeding.
Benefits of Breastfeeding: A Transition from the Womb to the World
As your baby leaves the safety and warmth of the womb, she will face the unfamiliar smells, sights, and sounds of the new world around her. She will crave the security of your voice, touch, and nourishment. Her instincts will tell her to search for your nipple and to suck (3). So in other words, your baby is born knowing she needs to breastfeed (4)! Breastfeeding satisfies every reflex and every need of your newborn baby (1). It provides a beautiful transition for you and your baby from pregnancy to infancy (5; 6).
Benefits of Breastfeeding: Recommended By All
Except in rare circumstances, health-care providers universally recommend breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months. They recommend you continue breastfeeding, supplementing with foods, until at least your baby’s first birthday. (WHO recommends breastfeeding until at least two years old (2).)
Despite the overwhelming evidence that “breast is best”, only 25% of babies are breastfed exclusively through the first six months. Only 58% of babies are receiving some breast milk at six months old (2). Bummer!
Benefits of Breastfeeding: Your Breast Milk Cannot Be Duplicated
Humans Need Human Milk
Your body naturally creates the best food for your baby. Or should I say the breast food for your baby? I can see you rolling your eyes at me. Like all mammal milk, human breast milk is species specific. In other words, cows create the best milk for cows and humans create the best milk for humans. For example, cow’s milk contains specific proteins that help muscles grow and protect against cow diseases. Whereas, human milk contains specific proteins that help the brain develop and protect against human diseases (3).
Breastfeeding is normal for your body! During puberty and throughout pregnancy, your amazing body prepares to breastfeed (1). Once the placenta is delivered, your body knows to start producing milk (3). When unfamiliar with breastfeeding, many women choose not to breastfeed. To help normalize breastfeeding, click here to learn how breast milk is produced.
Adapts to What Your Baby Needs
Breast milk adapts to meet the exact needs of your baby at any given moment (7). Read that sentence again! It’s amazing! Your breast milk is unique to you and your baby, and it will change to meet the demands of whatever your baby needs (1; 6).
Baby’s First Week
Breast milk drastically changes in the first few weeks of your baby’s life (6). In your baby’s first few days, the milk you produce is called colostrum. Colostrum has the following properties (6):
- Low volume
- High protein
- Easy to digest
Throughout the first week of your baby’s life, colostrum transitions to mature milk (4). Mature milk is designed for your rapidly growing baby. It has the following properties (6):
- Higher volume
- Lower protein
- Higher in lactose and fat
If your baby is born preterm, your colostrum and mature milk will produce more protein, different types of fats, and antibodies that a preterm baby specifically needs (4; 6).
Breast milk changes fat content depending on how long it’s been since the last feeding (5; 6). It changes if it’s hot or cold outside, by adjusting the water or fat content (7).
Breast milk even changes during each feeding! Breast milk starts out low in fat and gradually increases. Hindmilk, or the thicker milk produced a few minutes into each feeding, provides more calories, fat, and protein. So this helps your baby end each feeding feeling full and satisfied (7; 8).
When You’re Sick
As mentioned before, breast milk contains antibodies that help prevent sickness (4). For example, if you develop a cold while breastfeeding, your body produces antibodies to help you fight that cold. These special antibodies will also be passed to your baby through your breast milk. This new and improved breast milk recipe will help your baby heal quickly from the cold or help him avoid getting the cold altogether (6).
As Your Baby Grows
Breastfeeding works as a supply and demand system. The more your baby eats, the more milk you produce. This allows your baby to receive just the right amount of nutrients she needs at any stage of development (6). During your baby’s growth spurts, you will be able to give more milk, providing more proteins, fats, calories, and nutrients for your growing baby (6; 7). In the first month of breastfeeding, your breasts will make about 16.5oz of milk a day. By six months, you will produce a whopping 27oz per day (8)! As your baby gets older and starts eating other foods, your milk supply will gradually decrease (6).
Superior to Formula
Turns out that your breast milk recipe is impossible to duplicate (6). Scientists continually identify important breast milk components, and formula manufacturers can’t keep up (7)! Breast milk contains over 200 nutrients not found in formula (8)! Breastfeeding will always be the ideal option to feed your baby.
Benefits of Breastfeeding: The List Goes On and On!
Breastfeeding has long- and short-term benefits for your baby, you, your mother-baby relationship, and more!
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Baby’s Health
It’s simple—babies do better when they have their own mama’s milk. Although all the reasons aren’t fully understood, studies show breastfeeding protects your baby in the following aspects (6):
- Digestive System. Breast milk contains proteins, fats, sugars, and sodium that your baby can easily digest. Also, they help your baby absorb calcium and retain nutrients (7). Breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from the following (4; 6; 7 ; 8):
- Diaper Rash
- Gastrointestinal Infections
- Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
- Immune System. Breast milk contains antibodies, immune factors, enzymes, and white blood cells (6). These protect your baby from illness. As a result, your breastfed baby is less likely to develop, have severe symptoms, or be hospitalized for the following (4; 6; 7; 8):
- Ear infections
- Lower respiratory infections (croup, bronchiolitis, or pneumonia)
- Severe Diseases. Studies show breastfed babies (especially if breastfed longer than four months) are less likely to suffer from the following (6; 7; 8).
- Childhood leukemia and lymphoma
- Obesity in childhood, adolescence and adulthood
- Type 1 & 2 diabetes
- Bacterial meningitis
- Food allergies
- Crohn’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Breastfed babies are at a lower risk of SIDs (6; 7; 8). Some studies show a 36%-50% reduction of risk (6)!
- Brain, Nerves, and Senses. Breast milk contains hormones and human growth factors. These enhance your baby’s brain and nerve development (8). Some studies show the following impacts breastfeeding can have on your baby (6; 8):
- Enhances visual and auditory acuteness, especially in premature infants
- May contribute to a higher IQ and better cognitive test scores
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom’s Health
Breastfeeding helps more than just your baby! Next, let’s list some ways breastfeeding can impact your health:
- Reduces Stress. Breastfeeding hormones can help you feel comfort, peace, love, and less stress (1; 4).
- Hastens Postpartum Recovery. Breastfeeding hormones help the uterus return to its regular size. This may reduce postpartum bleeding (1; 6).
- Spaces Pregnancies. While breastfeeding is not a form of birth control, exclusively breastfeeding typically delays the return of your period (sometimes six months or more). This can help extend the time between pregnancies (1; 5; 6). But if you want Irish twins, you do you, Mama!
- Helps Weight Loss. Breastfeeding often increases weight loss in the first six weeks postpartum. Also, it may help you lose pregnancy weight faster (1; 4).
- Lowers Risk of Long-term Diseases. Studies show women who breastfeed are at a lower risk of developing the following (4; 6; 8):
- Breast cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom and Baby Relationship
Did you know breastfeeding fosters a special attachment between you and your baby? Next, here are some of the ways breastfeeding benefits your relationship with your little one:
- Promotes Mothering and Bonding. The hormones you release while breastfeeding foster mothering and bonding behaviors (6). For example, the hormone prolactin helps you feel peaceful and nurturing. It helps you push away everything else to focus on your baby (4; 6). On the other hand, the hormone oxytocin produces a strong sense of love and attachment (1; 6). Altogether, breastfeeding creates a physical and emotional connection between you and your baby (6).
- Soothes Quickly. Breastfeeding is quicker and simpler than preparing a bottle, allowing you to quickly feed and comfort your baby.
- Fulfills Mother. Countless mothers find breastfeeding both satisfying and even enjoyable (3; 5). After growing your baby inside of you for nine months, you can continue to nourish your baby through breastfeeding. How fulfilling!
Even More Benefits!
Lastly, I know what you’re thinking. “You mean to tell me there are more benefits of breastfeeding?! Pretty sure you had me at ‘it decreases my baby’s chance of getting cancer.'” There really is more!
- Money. Compared to the free milk you produce, formula is expensive. Breastfeeding can save you and your family some major moola!
- Convenience. Milk straight from the tap (i.e. your breast) is instant. It is also always the right temperature and available as long as you need it!
- Scent. Most agree —breastfed babies smell better! Although this benefit is usually not a deal breaker, breastfed babies tend to have a sweeter scent. Spit-up and bowel movements from formula are definitely more unpleasant (3).
- Society. The CDC identifies breastfeeding as a key strategy to improving public health (2). Breastfeeding benefits society by improving the following stats: healthier children, healthcare savings, high school completion, reduces physical assaults, and reduces child abuse (1).
- Earth. Go green! Formula feeding requires manufacturing plastic bottles, producing synthetic formula, throwing away formula containers, and using water to wash bottles. By comparison, breastfeeding is by far the more environmentally-friendly option (6). Besides, it gives a whole new meaning to eating local!
Although breast milk is ideal, special situations may prevent you from nursing (6). In those cases, there are options! For example, babies can receive expressed milk, milk from a food bank, or formula. If you have any questions or doubts, talk to your caregiver. You can also consult a lactation consultant, your baby’s caregiver, or a childbirth educator (8). How you feed your baby does not reflect on who you are as a loving parent.
You Can Do It!
Sixty percent of mothers do not breastfeed for as long as they intend (2). According to the CDC, the following factors contribute to this statistic (2):
- Issues with lactation and latching
- Concerns about infant nutrition and weight
- Mom’s concern about taking medications while breastfeeding
- Lack of supportive work policies, including parental leave
- Cultural norms and lack of family support
- Unsupportive hospital practices and policies
As you prepare to breastfeed, educate your partner and your family about breastfeeding. Talk with your healthcare provider and a lactation specialist. Make a plan if you’re returning to work.
It takes time, education, and support to adjust to the world of breastfeeding, but you can do it! You (and only you!) will be able to provide the healthiest start possible for your baby through the superpowers of breastfeeding. Go mama!
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- CAPPA: Childbirth & Postpartum Professional Association. (2016). Lactation Educator Manual (Ninth Edition).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020, September 28). Breastfeeding. Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/facts.html
- Huggins, K. (2005). The Nursing Mother’s Companion (Fifth Edition). Boston, MA: The Harvard Common Press.
- Injoy Health Education. 2016. Understanding Breastfeeding: Your Guide to a Healthy Start (Seventh Edition). Longmont, CO: InJoy Birth & Parenting Education.
- La Leche League International. (1991). The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (Fifth Edition). New York, NY: Penguin Group.
- Meek, J.Y., Yu, W., American Academy of Pediatrics. (2011). New Mother’s Guide to Breastfeeding (Second Edition). New York, NY: Bantam Books Trade Paperback
- Rosenthal, M.S. (2000). The Breastfeeding Sourcebook (Third Edition). Lincolnwood, IL: Lowell House.
- Simkin, P., Whalley, J., Keppler, A., Durham, J., & Bolding, A. (2016). Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete Guide (Fifth Edition). Minnetonka, MN: Meadowbrook Press.