Among the most important benefits of breastfeeding is the protection that it gives your baby from a long list of illnesses. Worldwide research indicates that breastfed babies suffer less often than others from ailments such as ear infections, stomach viruses, lower respiratory illness, and meningitis. Even when they do experience these infirmities, the symptoms are not normally severe. Exclusive breastfeeding, with no formula, solid food, or water, appears to offer the most protection.
According to the results of a very large study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the risk of infant mortality is reduced by breastfeeding. The length of time that a baby nurses seems to directly affect the risk level with long-term, exclusive breastfeeding lowering the baby’s chances of death by about 20 percent. The main immune factor is the substance called secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA). Since this antibody forms a protective layer over the mucous membranes in your baby’s intestines, throat, and nose, it is highly effective in warding off harmful germs. The first milk that your body produces after childbirth, the colostrum, contains secretory IgA in abundance. This protective substance continues to exist in your mature breast milk but in lower concentrations.
As your body responds to pathogens (bacteria and viruses), it produces very specific secretory IgA to combat them. The antibodies are passed on to your baby through your breast milk and work to keep your baby safe from the germs to which you are exposed. Your body’s milk is, therefore, specially tailored to your baby. The protection seems to stay with your child even after the breastfeeding has ended. Although scientists cannot explain the reasons, youngsters who were breastfed as infants are at a lower risk than most kids for certain childhood cancers. Likewise, breastfed babies appear to have increased immunity to diseases like type 1 and type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel issues, and high cholesterol. When preemies are fed breast milk, they tend to develop an unusually strong resistance to high blood pressure throughout childhood. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have been linked by researchers to an absence of breastfeeding.
The protective covering over the child’s intestinal tract may help to prevent allergic reactions to food. Researchers have found that babies who are fed cow’s milk or soy-based formula suffer from allergies significantly more than those who are breastfed. Without the shielding layer, inflammation may develop causing the intestine wall to become “leaky”. Undigested proteins that cross the gut can cause allergic reactions and other health problems. In recent studies, formula-fed babies have also been found to react more severely to immunizations while breastfed infants are less likely to develop fevers.
Even your baby’s intelligence level may be affected by your choice to breastfeed during the first year of life. Scientists have found a connection between breast milk and cognitive development. In one study, researchers followed more than 17,000 children from birth to age 6 1/2 years. They concluded that the kids who had been breastfed for a prolonged time period scored higher than other children on a variety of intelligence tests. Those who had been exclusively breastfed for several months showed a significant measure of cognitive skills. A different test involving nearly 4,000 children resulted in higher vocabulary test scores at age five among kids who had been breastfed as infants in comparison to those who had been formula-fed. Once again, the longer the child had been breastfed, the better he did on the test.
The mental development of preterm infants with very low birth weights is advanced by a diet of breast milk. Preemies who start receiving breast milk shortly after birth show a big improvement in cognitive skills by the time they are 18 months old. At age 2 1/2, they still appear to be developing at a healthy rate while preterm babies who have not been breastfed fall behind. Additionally, premature babies who are not given breast milk are more likely to return to the hospital after release with respiratory infections. While experts believe that the fatty acids in breast milk trigger mental development, they also think that the emotional bonding associated with breastfeeding may play a role in the baby’s progress.
Based on the analysis of 17 studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, breastfeeding your baby decreases the risk of teen and adult obesity. The findings in these studies are consistent with previous tests in that the babies who were breastfed for the longest duration grew up with the greatest advantage. Scientists presume that the link between breast milk and later weight-related health exists for the following reasons.
- Breastfed babies establish good eating patterns because they stop feeding when their hunger is satisfied.
- Breast milk contains less insulin than formula and, therefore, stimulates less creation of fat.
- Breastfed babies have more leptin in their systems than babies who are given formula. This hormone may regulate appetite and fat.
- Formula-fed babies gain weight very rapidly during the first weeks of life.
If you worry about sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), then breastfeeding is a viable option for you. In a 2009 German study, researchers concluded that a one-month-old baby who breastfeeds exclusively has his risk of SIDS cut in half. Even if your baby’s diet consists partially of breast milk, the danger is lowered. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that mothers breastfeed their babies for as long as possible for protection against SIDS.
Since childbirth and motherhood are life-changing events, your stress level may be higher than usual. Women who breastfeed their babies often feel relaxed during the process due to the release of oxytocin. Although this hormone is widely known for causing your uterus to contract and limiting your after-birth bleeding, many studies of both humans and animals indicate that it also triggers feelings of nurturing and relaxation. It may keep your blood pressure down as well. Postpartum depression is an issue for many mothers, but breastfeeding may keep it under control. Experts at the National Institutes of Health claim that the risk is higher for women who either don’t breastfeed at all or stop nursing after a short time. One study determined that half of breastfeeding mothers have high levels of oxytocin in their systems as opposed to only eight percent of formula-feeding moms. If you are struggling with depression, you can still breastfeed your baby. Simply ask your doctor about safe ways to treat your depression while nursing.
Another benefit for a breastfeeding mother is a lowered risk of breast and ovarian cancer. At least one year of nursing can greatly reduce your chances of getting breast cancer. Although scientists are unsure about how lactation works to prevent cancer, they suspect that it may be related to the resulting structural changes in breast tissue. The reduced amount of estrogen that is produced by a nursing mother’s body probably prevents both breast and ovarian cancer.
Researchers are consistently discovering new benefits in breastfeeding for both the mother and her baby. The process, however, can sometimes be difficult. If you are struggling in your quest to nurse your baby, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider or a certified lactation consultant for help or support.