Motherhood is full of decisions like deciding which feeding method, breastfeeding or formula-feeding, is best for the mother and the baby. Most mothers focus on the baby’s needs and prioritize the health of the baby when making such decisions. Fortunately, both feeding methods provide a great source of nutrition to grow a healthy baby. Experts say breast milk provides the best source of nutrition for the baby and breastfeeding benefits both the mother and the child in many ways, some of which will be explored in this article.
Health Benefits for the Baby
There are a multitude of health benefits that a mother’s breast milk provides for her baby that the latest science and technology cannot replicate. Breast milk provides healthy enzymes, abundant and easily absorbed nutritional components, antioxidants and immunity-boosting antibodies that no formula can produce. Breast milk even contains substances that naturally soothe infants; it really is nature’s perfect baby food. Here are more health benefits of breast milk for babies:
Stronger Immune System
The mother’s mature immune system creates antibodies to fight germs she comes into contact with. These antibodies enter her breast milk and are passed on to the baby. This helps protect the mother and her baby from the germs and illnesses they are both exposed to. Breast milk protects the baby against pneumonia, ear infections, bacterial and viral infections. Formula-fed infants are three times more likely to suffer from ear infections than breastfed babies, and up to five times more likely to suffer from pneumonia and lower respiratory-tract infections.
Lower risk of allergies, eczema and asthma
Babies are at a higher risk of developing allergies if there is a family history of eczema, asthma, hay fever or food allergies. Breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months can reduce the baby’s risk even if there is a family history of these conditions.
In 2019, The AAP’s (American Academy of Pediatrics) Committee on Nutrition and Section on Allergy and Immunology updated its clinical report on maternal and early infant diets in regard to the prevention of atopic disease. The report suggests that although there is no clear evidence that diet restrictions for mothers can help prevent allergies in the baby, there is clear evidence that exclusive breastfeeding for 3 to 4 months can decrease the risk of eczema in the first 2 years of life.
Frank R. Greer, MD, FAAP, one of the lead authors of the report stated:
“There is no evidence that delaying the introduction of allergenic foods beyond 6 months of age prevents any allergies. There is evidence that breastfeeding prevents early childhood wheezing in early childhood and prevents asthma in later childhood years. Exclusive breastfeeding for 3 to 4 months may prevent early childhood asthma.”
Healthy Digestive System
Breast milk is easy for the baby’s body to break down, therefore, breastfed babies are less likely to have upset stomach, diarrhea and constipation than formula-fed babies.
Breastfed babies are less likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Approximately 3,500 newborns die suddenly and unexpectedly every year and breastfed infants account for only half as many SIDS cases as formula-fed infants. According to a 2017 study by University of Virginia School of Medicine, any amount of breastfeeding- partial or exclusive - reduces the risk of SIDS. Fern Hauck, M.D., an associate professor at the UVA School of Medicine and the UVA Children's Hospital stated: “Breastfeeding for just two months reduces the risk of SIDS by almost half, and the longer babies are breastfed, the greater the protection.”
(Potentially) Higher IQ
Although inconclusive, multiple studies have suggested that breastfed babies, especially exclusively breastfed babies, tend to have a higher IQ later in life than formula-fed babies.
Health Benefits for the Mother
Lower Risk of High blood pressure.
The Nurses’ Health Study II looked at the correlation between breastfeeding and risk of high blood pressure in 56,000 women who had at least one baby. According to the study, women who had breastfed for six months or longer were less likely to suffer from high blood pressure over fourteen years than women who had formula-fed.
Lower Risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Studies show that breastfeeding reduces the risk of type II diabetes in the mother. Mothers who breastfeed their babies have better glucose metabolism and higher insulin sensitivity, which helps the body use glucose more effectively and reduces blood sugar levels.
Lower Risk of Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer
Breastfeeding moms generally experience hormonal changes during lactation that delay their menstrual periods. This lessens a woman's lifetime exposure to hormones such as estrogen, which can promote breast cancer cell growth. Also, during pregnancy and breastfeeding, women shed breast tissue.
Studies suggest that breastfeeding can also lower a mother’s risk of ovarian cancer. The more ovulations occur, the greater the risk of cell mutation, which can trigger the disease. However, breastfeeding can delay ovulation which may help prevent ovarian cancer.
Faster Weight Loss and Uterus Recovery
Milk production can burn about 300 to 500 calories a day, helping nursing mothers to lose weight naturally. Breastfeeding also stimulates the uterus to contract and return to prepregnancy size. In the first few weeks, mothers may feel mild contractions while nursing.
Breastfeeding has proven to be (generally) better for the mother’s mental health. While a whopping 50 to 75% of new mothers experience the “baby blues”, which is caused by a shift in their emotions, up to 15% of these women will develop postpartum depression. Multiple studies report that mothers who are formula-feeding are more likely to have higher levels of depressive symptoms and higher rates of depression than mothers who are breastfeeding. There is evidence that breastfeeding can protect against postpartum depression or assist in a faster recovery from symptoms, and not engaging in breastfeeding may increase a mother’s risk of postpartum depression. A study by Emiko Nishioka and colleagues found that at 5 months postpartum, the proportion of mothers with a high risk of postpartum depression was significantly lower for mothers who were breastfeeding than those formula-feeding.
While there may be countless benefits of breastfeeding for both the mother and the baby, every mother should consider her life circumstances and make a personal decision with the support of her doctor.
Nishioka E, Haruna M, Ota E, Matsuzaki M, Murayama R, Yoshimura K, Murashima S. A prospective study of the relationship between breastfeeding and postpartum depressive symptoms appearing at 1-5 months after delivery. J Affect Disord. 2011 Oct;133(3):553-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2011.04.027. Epub 2011 Jun 25. PMID: 21705090.