August is National Breastfeeding Month, a great time to bring newfound awareness to nature’s oldest—and indisputably best—way to feed a baby. Renowned breastfeeding expert Dr. Ruth Lawrence shares information on the benefits of breastfeeding for moms and babies.
The evidence on breastfeeding’s value to the physical and emotional well-being of babies and mothers is significant and continues to grow, yet many new moms still don’t attempt breastfeeding or don’t sustain it for the six-month period recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and many others.
The AAP recommends that babies get only breast milk for the first six months of life, and then continue getting breast milk along with other foods until they are at least 1 year old, or as long thereafter as mother and baby wish.
Here’s the most compelling reason to breastfeed: it’s what nature intended. Every species of mammal makes a milk specific for their offspring, but humans are the only ones who sometimes opt to feed their young the milk from another species—cows. Even formula that’s not derived from cows’ milk can’t compare to what nature provides.
Here are some benefits to consider as you weigh the options for feeding your baby.
Benefits for Babies
- Nutrition: A baby’s brain doubles in the first year of life; help build that brain by giving it the best nutrition possible. Nutrients in breast milk such as taurine, an amino acid, and DHA, a fatty acid, support brain growth. Breastfeeding supports your baby in reaching his or her full intellectual potential.
- Defense against illness: Helpful antibodies are passed from mom to baby via breast milk, giving the baby greater resistance to common childhood illnesses including colds, strep throat and gastrointestinal problems. Formula-fed babies are three times more likely to have ear infections compared to breastfed infants because formula may back up into the baby’s eustachian tubes and middle ear when a baby is bottle-fed. When a baby suckles milk at mom’s breast, the eustachian tubes close and fluid doesn't flow back into the inner ear. Additionally, research shows that breastfed babies have fewer allergies than formula-fed babies and are less likely to develop asthma and diabetes.
- Better digestion: Breast milk is easier for baby to digest than formula, so he or she will experience less diarrhea or constipation. And studies have shown that breastfed babies are less likely to battle excess weight later in childhood.
Benefits for Moms
- Faster recovery: New moms’ bodies recover from pregnancy and childbirth faster when they breastfeed and their “baby weight” drops more quickly, too. Women who breastfeed have less postpartum blood loss and their uterus goes back to its normal size and position in the abdominal cavity much quicker.
- Bonding and relaxation: Bringing a newborn home can be a busy and stressful time; breastfeeding gives mom and baby time to relax and form a nurturing bond.
- Convenience: Nursing costs less than formula and breast milk is ready whenever your baby needs to feed. Moms can pump their breast milk and store it for later use when they will be away from their babies.
- Long-term health benefits: Women who breastfeed have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancers, and are less likely to develop osteoporosis later in life.
Even with all these benefits, some women opt not to breastfeed or they curtail it sooner than the ideal. They may think they won’t be successful at it, that the process will be inconvenient or that they won’t produce enough milk to adequately feed their baby. In almost all cases, women can breastfeed successfully if they have adequate information and support.
My advice is to learn all you can about breastfeeding while you are pregnant, and take advantage of the experience from other women who have breastfed. When you are in the hospital with your new baby, lactation consultants will be there to help you get started, and will also be available by phone to answer your questions after you leave the hospital. There are also excellent online resources including La Leche League.
Ruth A. Lawrence, M.D., is a professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Golisano Children’s Hospital. An internationally recognized expert on breastfeeding, she is the author of Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession, the gold-standard for the scientific understanding of human lactation and clinical breastfeeding practices.