If you’ve been considering not breastfeeding your new baby, you’re probably inundated with information. It’s a personal decision only you can make, but the benefits are seemingly endless.
Before you decide (or if you just need reassurance that breast milk is the right choice for you), let’s go through all the benefits to both you and baby.
Breast milk provides optimal nutrition for babies. It has the right amount of nutrients, is easily digested, and is readily available.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, and continuing even after solid foods are introduced, until at least age 1 year or until both mom and baby agree to call it quits.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding until 2 years old or longer because the benefits continue that long. These agencies recommend starting as early as one hour after birth for the biggest benefits.
These recommendations don’t come lightly, and you’ll see why.
Here are 11 science-based benefits of breastfeeding that are amazing for you and for your little one.
1. Breast milk provides ideal nutrition for babies
Most healthcare professionals recommend exclusive breastfeeding for at least 6 months or much longer.
Breast milk contains everything baby needs for the first 6 months of life, in all the right proportions. Its composition even changes according to the baby’s changing needs, especially during the first month of life.
During the first days after birth, your breasts produce a thick and yellowish fluid called colostrum. It’s high in protein, low in sugar, and loaded with beneficial compounds. It’s truly a wonder food and not replaceable by formula.
Colostrum is the ideal first milk and helps the newborn’s immature digestive tract develop. After the first few days, the breasts start producing larger amounts of milk as the baby’s stomach grows.
About the only thing that may be lacking from your magical milk supply is vitamin D.
Unless you have a very high intake (and most of us don’t), your breast milk won’t provide enough. Vitamin D drops are usually recommended.
2. Breast milk contains important antibodies
Breast milk is loaded with antibodies that help your baby fight off viruses and bacteria, which is critical in those tender, early months.
This particularly applies to colostrum, the first milk. Colostrum provides high amounts of immunoglobulin A (IgA), as well as several other antibodies.
When you’re exposed to viruses or bacteria, you start producing antibodies that then go into the milk. It’s immunity, baby!
IgA protects the baby from getting sick by forming a protective layer in the baby’s nose, throat, and digestive system.
Formula doesn’t provide antibody protection for babies. Numerous studies show that babies who are not breastfed are more vulnerable to health issues like pneumonia, diarrhea, and infection.
3. Breastfeeding may reduce disease risk
Exclusive breastfeeding, meaning that the infant receives only breast milk, is particularly beneficial.
It may reduce your baby’s risk for many illnesses and diseases, including:
- Middle ear infections. Breastfeeding, particularly exclusively and as long as possible, may protect against middle ear, throat, and sinus infections well beyond infancy.
- Respiratory tract infections. Breastfeeding can protect against multiple respiratory and gastrointestinal acute illnesses.
- Colds and infections. Babies exclusively breastfed for 6 months may have a lower risk of getting serious colds and ear or throat infections.
- Gut infections. Breastfeeding is linked with a reduction in gut infections.
- Intestinal tissue damage. Feeding preterm babies breast milk is linked with a reduction in the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis.
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Breastfeeding is linked to a reduced risk of SIDS, especially when breastfeeding exclusively.
- Allergic diseases. Breastfeeding is linked to a reduced risk of asthma, atopic dermatitis, and eczema.
- Bowel diseases. Babies who are breastfed may be less likely to develop Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
- Diabetes. Breastfeeding is linked to a reduced risk of developing type 1 diabetes and non-insulin-dependent (type 2) diabetes.
- Childhood leukemia. Breastfeeding is linked to a reduction in the risk for childhood leukemia.
4. Breast milk promotes baby’s healthy weight
Breastfeeding promotes healthy weight gain and helps prevent childhood obesity.
One study showed that breastfeeding for longer than 4 months had a significant reduction in the chances of a baby developing overweight and obesity.
This may be due to the development of different gut bacteria. Breastfed babies have higher amounts of beneficial gut bacteria, which may affect fat storage.
Babies fed breast milk also have more leptin in their systems than formula-fed babies. Leptin is a key hormone for regulating appetite and fat storage.
Breastfed babies also self-regulate their milk intake. They’re better at eating only until they’ve satisfied their hunger, which helps them develop healthy eating patterns.
5. Breastfeeding may make children smarter
Breastfeeding may help baby ace those tests. Some studies suggest there may be a difference in brain development between breastfed and formula-fed babies.
This difference may be due to the physical intimacy, touch, and eye contact associated with breastfeeding as well as nutrient content.
Studies indicate that breastfed babies have higher intelligence scores and are less likely to develop behavioral problems have learning difficulties as they grow older.
However, the most pronounced effects are seen in preterm babies, who have a higher risk for developmental issues.
The research clearly shows that breastfeeding has significant positive effects on babies’ long-term brain development.
6. Breastfeeding may help you lose weight
You may have heard this one often. While some women seem to gain weight during breastfeeding, others seem to effortlessly lose weight.
Breastfeeding does burn more calories, and after 3 months of lactation, you’ll likely experience an increase in fat burning compared to non-lactating mothers. Though the difference isn’t significant.
7. Breastfeeding helps the uterus contract
During pregnancy, your uterus grows immensely, expanding from the size of a pear to filling almost the entire space of your abdomen.
After delivery, your uterus goes through a process called involution, which helps it return to its previous size. Oxytocin, a hormone that increases throughout pregnancy, helps drive this process.
Your body secretes high amounts of oxytocin during labor to help deliver the baby and reduce bleeding. It can also help you bond with your new little one.
Oxytocin also increases during breastfeeding. It encourages uterine contractions and reduces bleeding, helping the uterus return to its previous size.
Studies have also shown that mothers who breastfeed generally have less blood loss after delivery and faster involution of the uterus.
8. Mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk for depression
Postpartum depression (PPD) is a type of depression that can develop shortly after childbirth.
Women who breastfeed seem less likely to develop postpartum depression, compared to mothers who wean early or do not breastfeed, according to a 2021 study.
However, those who experience postpartum depression early after delivery are also more likely to have trouble breastfeeding and do so for a shorter duration.
If you have any symptoms of PPD, tell your doctor as soon as possible.
9. Breastfeeding reduces your disease risk
Breastfeeding seems to provide you with long-term protection against cancer and several diseases.
The total time a woman spends breastfeeding is linked with a reduced risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
Women who breastfeed have a lower risk for:
- high blood pressure
- high blood fats
- heart disease
- type 2 diabetes
10. Breastfeeding may prevent menstruation
Continued breastfeeding also pauses ovulation and menstruation. The suspension of menstrual cycles may actually be nature’s way of ensuring there’s some time between pregnancies.
You may consider this change as an extra benefit. While you’re enjoying precious time with your newborn, it’s just one less thing to worry about.
11. It saves time and money
To top the list, breastfeeding is mostly free, barring expenses for any lactation consulting and breast pumps. By choosing to breastfeed, you won’t have to:
- spend money on formula
- calculate how much your baby needs to drink daily
- spend time cleaning and sterilizing bottles
- mix and warm up bottles in the middle of the night (or day)
- figure out ways to warm up bottles while on the go
Breast milk is always at the right temperature and ready to drink.
The benefits of breastfeeding are so numerous that most health agencies recommend it for everyone for as long as possible, barring medical problems that prevent it.
Breast milk contains antibodies and other elements that protect your baby from illness and chronic disease. It’s the best start you can give, if you’re able.
Plus, we can’t discount the big benefits to you, for health reasons and convenience.
No matter what choice you make, your healthcare team can guide you to the right methods and choices. You’ve got this.