The importance of breastfeeding to the health and welfare of babies is a topic that most of us are familiar with, but there may be even more to it than many people are aware of. Ongoing research continues to uncover new insights that make breastfeeding a much better choice. One particular insight that may come as a surprise to some is that the breastfeeding benefits for mom are often just as significant as those for the baby. The evidence is clear: breastfeeding is by far the best choice for all concerned. Let’s discuss what I believe to be the three most important reasons to breastfeed.
Most Important Reasons to Breastfeed 1 – Protection from Illness
All mammal mothers produce milk that is specifically designed for their offspring. It wouldn’t make sense for a baby cow to drink human milk, so why would a baby human drink cow’s milk?
Human milk is a very complex, living organism, far beyond just simple food. In some ways, it is more like blood than food. It contains many components that provide nutrition and help prevent babies from a slew of different germs and diseases. This is critical for newborns whose immune systems are not yet mature. They get a lot of their protection from mom’s immune system via her breast milk.
Each drop of breast milk contains about one million macrophages, or white blood cells, that have a ravenous appetite for germs. Colostrum, which is the name for the particular type of breast milk that is produced in the first few days after birth, is also very rich in a substance known as immunoglobulin A(IgA), which serves as a coating in a baby’s immature intestines to keep germs out and protect against food allergies. Some have called colostrum the first immunization your baby receives (and hopefully the only kind she will ever receive).
Human milk has the amazing ability to customize antibodies to fit your baby’s specific needs. For example, if Mom gets a cold or the flu, some folks might be tempted not to breastfeed while sick. But in reality, continuing to nurse is the best thing you can do. Mom’s antibodies will be passed on to the baby, and he or she will either not come down with the bug or be able to fight it off faster and more effectively.
Other health benefits to breastfed babies that have been documented include:
- Fewer ear infections: These pesky infections are the nemesis of many a mother and child, but kids who nurse have a greater natural resistance to the respiratory infections that are usually the cause of ear infections. Another factor is that breastfed babies are usually fed in an upright position rather than lying down like many bottle-fed babies. This alone can decrease the incidence of ear infections. Nursing babies also develop fewer respiratory allergies and thus fewer ear infections.
- Less diarrhea and upset stomachs: Mother’s milk aids in digestion, thereby eliminating many intestinal problems that many bottle-fed babies endure. This is, of course, more pleasant for baby and mom, but the implications go far beyond that. Diarrhea and the dehydration that accompanies it is the leading cause of infant mortality worldwide, so breastfeeding can actually save countless lives just due to that factor alone. Breast milk also encourages the growth of good bacteria in the intestinal tract, which helps the baby to have a balanced, happy gut that can digest food and absorb nutrients more effectively.
- Lower incidence of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome): One theory about SIDS states that it may occur when infants sleep too deeply and cannot wake up when they stop breathing for a few moments, which is a normal phenomenon in babies. Breastfed children do not sleep as deeply and therefore have less of a chance of succumbing to SIDS. Some research indicates breast milk’s infection-fighting properties may lessen the chances of SIDS as well.
- Less reflux: Because breast milk is digested much faster and easier than formula, babies are less likely to spit up when feeding or afterward. Not only is this neater, but there is less chance of choking, and the child also can absorb necessary nutrients more efficiently.
Most Important Reasons to Breastfeed 2 – Makes for Healthier Adults
Well, so far, we know that breastfeeding is good for the little ones. What about when they grow up. Does nursing have any effect on their health later in life? As a matter of fact, it does:
- Better dental health: Want to save on the braces bill for junior when he grows up? Then breastfeed him. The sucking action makes for better jaw alignment and less need for orthodontic work later on. It also develops the facial muscles and the tongue to a greater degree than in kids who are not breastfed. What can this mean? A better facial structure lessening the incidence of such conditions as sleep apnea, which involves blockage of the airways during sleep and can cause multiple health problems.
- Less risk for heart disease: Research is ongoing in this area, but the preliminary results are exciting. Because human milk is very high in cholesterol, it is thought that breastfed babies learn to metabolize cholesterol better than formula-fed babies. This leads to a reduced risk for atherosclerosis and related coronary disease as adults.
- Lowered risk for juvenile diabetes: The main explanation for this may be that breastfed babies delay introducing cow’s milk into their systems. Another theory states that breastfed kids experience a lower insulin release than bottle-fed ones. Whatever the case, statistics tell us that breastfed babies have a lower incidence of Type one juvenile diabetes. This is even more important in families that have a history of diabetes.
- Less asthma and allergies: In addition to protecting from allergies in the first months of life, a steady diet of breast milk delays introducing some of the most common allergens, such as cow’s milk and soy protein, which seems to be in everything these days.
- Lowered risk for Multiple Sclerosis: This degenerative muscle disease is not nearly as common in adults who were breastfed as babies. It most likely has something to do with a component of breast milk that prevents the breakdown of myelin that is responsible for MS.
- Lowered risk for other illnesses: Researchers believe they have only scratched the surface when it comes to fully understanding the disease-fighting benefits of breast milk in children and adults. Other illnesses that indicate a lower incidence in breastfed children include childhood cancers, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Digestive diseases such as these seem to be particularly helped by breastfeeding.
- Obesity is also found at a reduced rate in breastfed babies. This is true for children and adults. Perhaps it has something to do with how food is taken in and digested from a very young age. The reasons for this are not fully understood, but the numbers speak for themselves.
Most Important Reasons to Breastfeed 3 – Healthy for Mom
I could go on and on, as the list of benefits to babies seems endless, and more discoveries are made all the time. However, let’s take a look at some of the good things that Mom can reap for herself from breastfeeding her children.
- Lowered risk for breast cancer: For reasons not fully understood yet, breastfeeding can reduce a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer by as much as 25%. The longer she breastfeeds over the course of her childbearing years, the greater the benefit.
- Less uterine and ovarian cancer too! It is a known fact that estrogen levels are lower during lactation, and the theory is that this is why cancers such as these decrease in incidence for nursing mothers. This is probably a factor in lower breast cancer rates as well.
- Less chance of osteoporosis: Women who breastfeed their babies have a whopping 400% lower risk for osteoporosis than those who do not breastfeed. This is a benefit that goes all the way into menopause and beyond—fewer hip fractures as a Grandma!
- Natural child spacing: Looking for a natural form of birth control? The longer a woman breastfeeds after giving birth, the longer she can delay ovulation and conception. This is a very effective method of “family planning” that has worked wonderfully for thousands of generations with no dangerous side effects.
- Great for emotional health: Women who breastfeed have a significantly lower rate of postpartum depression than do formula-feeding moms. There is no better way to create a bond between mother and baby than to breastfeed. It’s truly a win-win situation.
- Easier postpartum weight loss: Breastfeeding moms generally return to their pre-pregnant weight and figures much faster and easier than those who do not breastfeed.
- More $ economical: Trying to stretch your budget? It is estimated that the average family will save about $400 in the first year alone by breastfeeding. The cost of formula and all the related paraphernalia can burden a young family who is just starting.
Other Important Reasons to Breastfeed
Human babies are designed to run on breast milk for fuel, and they develop and prosper much better when they have a steady supply of it. Besides the issues we have discussed above, here is a quick list of some other benefits to the health of babies who are breastfed:
- Better brain development
- Greater visual acuity
- Fewer bouts with tonsillitis
- Stronger respiratory system
- Healthier heart
- Healthy and robust immune system
- Better kidney health
- Fewer appendix problems
- Stronger endocrine system
- Healthier joints and muscles
- More lean muscle (less obesity)
- Better bowel function
- Healthier urinary tract (less UTIs)
RELATED: 101 Reasons to Breastfeed Your Child
This article is just an overview of the myriads of benefits from breastfeeding to baby, mother, and society in general. Statistics tell us that among infants born in 2015, 4 out of 5 (83.2 percent) started out breastfeeding immediately after birth. This high percentage of babies who start out breastfeeding shows that most mothers want to breastfeed and are trying to do so. (R) While nearly 6 in 10 (57.6 percent) infants are still breastfeeding at 6 months of age, only 1 in 4 are breastfeeding exclusively. If we could somehow succeed at raising these numbers higher, we could only imagine the possible benefits. And the implications for the rest of the world are huge as well. I can think of no better way to impact infant mortality rates than to increase the number of mothers who breastfeed their babies and stick with it into toddlerhood. I realize that for some moms, breastfeeding is impossible. But even if you can only do it for a short period of time, it can still have a dramatic impact on both the health of your baby and on you. The advantages are countless, and it can change the life of your child forever.