The Benefits of Breastfeeding – part 1 (for the wee ones)

By on Jan 29, 2013 in Breastfeeding, Health and Nutrition, Uncategorized Comments: 0. Tags:

This post is part one of a series about the benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding improves the health of both mom and babe in the industrialized and the developing world. Because of the known detrimental effects of supplementing with formula or other forms of replacement feeding, infant nutrition can and should be viewed as a public health issue, not simply as a family’s choice. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life and through one year or longer (as long as mom and babe want) with solid foods added as appropriate. Here I will focus on how infants benefit from breastmilk. Much of this information comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics and CIMS (the Coalition for Improving Maternity Services). Usually I try to keep numbers and statistics to a minimum because they often feel overwhelming and confusing, but in this post, I really felt like the numbers make such an important point – the percentages here are astounding – so I left them in. I hope they add to your amazement as they have to mine!

Many of us have heard that breastmilk is the best milk for our babies. We have probably heard that it reduces the risk and incidence of childhood sickness and therefore keeps our babies and kids away from the doctor’s office. Let’s delve deeper into exactly what breastmilk protects our babies from and how much. To gain a quick understanding, I have made bold the various diseases and conditions that are reduced through breastfeeding.

An infant’s immune system does not fully develop until around 2 years of age. Breastmilk contains significant amounts of white blood cells that help fight infections in the baby’s body, thereby reducing the incidence of and the severity of numerous infectious diseases, including bacterial meningitis, urinary tract infections, diarrhea, and more. If babe is exclusively breastfed for four months or more, the risk of hospitalization within the first year of life for lower respiratory tract infections is reduced by 72%. When compared to a baby who was exclusively breastfed for six months, a baby who was breastfed for four months is four times as likely to suffer from pneumonia. Ear infections (otitis media) are reduced by 23% if baby receives any breastmilk (when compared with baby who only receives formula), and the risk of an ear infection is reduced by 50% if the baby is exclusively breastfed for three months or more. When a baby is breastfed for six months or more, the incidence of serious colds and ear and throat infections is reduced by 63%.

Breastmilk contains anti-inflammatory factors that reduce the incidence of bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Breastfed babies enjoy a 64% reduction in nonspecific gastrointestinal tract infections. This protection lasts for two months after breastfeeding has ended. The risk of childhood inflammatory bowel disease is reduced by 31%.

When exclusively breastfed for three to four months, infants in a low-risk population are 27% less likely to suffer from asthma, atopic dermatitis, and eczema; research shows a 42% reduction of these conditions for infants with a positive family history. If a baby is exposed to gluten while mom is breastfeeding, there is a 52% reduced risk of Celiac Disease. This benefit does not exist if mom is not breastfeeding at the time of exposure.

Exclusive breastfeeding for three to four months results in a 30% reduction in Type I Diabetes Mellitus and a 40% reduction in Type II Diabetes Mellitus. When compared with no breastfeeding, any breastfeeding at all shows a 15-30% reduction in adolescent and adult obesity rates. The duration of breastfeeding is inversely related to the risk of being overweight – each month of breastfeeding reduces the risk by 4%. Breastfed infants learn to self-regulate the amount of breastmilk they ingest; early self-regulation seems to affect weight gain as an adult. Babies who use a bottle (whether breastmilk or replacement feeding) do not learn self-regulation. Breastfed babies also enjoy lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol as adolescents.

Infants breastfed for six months or more show a 20% reduction in the risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia and a 15% reduction for acute myeloid leukemia. Infants breastfed for less than six months also show a reduced risk at 12% and 10%, respectively.

Breastfeeding has shown to reduce the risk of SIDS by 36%.

Breastmilk is important for all infants, but it is life-saving for preterm infants. Recent research has shown astounding results comparing preterm infants who have received breastmilk with those who have not. Breastmilk encourages the development of the baby’s immature host defense, resulting in lower rates of sepsis. Any breastmilk, compared to none at all, reduces the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis by 58%; exclusive breastfeeding reduces the incidence by 77%. Preterm infants who receive breastmilk stay at the hospital for a shorter amount of time (therefore reducing hospital costs) and return to the hospital for readmission fewer times within the first year after discharge from the NICU.

Breastfeeding also greatly affects infant mortality rates around the world. In breastfed babies, the infant mortality rate in the United States after the first month of life is reduced by 21%. It has been estimated that if 90% of moms in the United States exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months of life, 900 infant lives would be saved each year. Worldwide, 90% of childhood deaths occur in 42 developing countries. If more mothers in these counties exclusively breastfeed their babies for six months with weaning after one year, the potential to save more than one million infant lives exists. Breastfeeding is the greatest intervention for these babies.

Many of us have likely heard that breastfeeding will make our kids smarter. Well, research shows that this is true! Infants breastfed for three or more months receive higher intelligence scores and better teacher ratings. Preterm infants who receive breastmilk show incredible differences in long-term neurological development. Breastmilk enhances brainstem maturation, resulting in better scores for mental, motor, and behavior development at 18 and 30 months and higher scores on future IQ tests. These infants also show greater white matter and brain volume at 8 years of age.

In an effort to increase rates of breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorses the WHO/UNICEF 10 Steps to Successful Breastfeeding:

1. Have a written breastfeeding policy that is routinely communicated to all health care staff.
2. Train all health care staff in the skills necessary to implement this policy.
3. Inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breastfeeding.
4. Help mothers initiate breastfeeding within the first hour of birth.
5. Show mothers how to breastfeed and how to maintain lactation even if they are separated from their infants.
6. Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breastmilk, unless medically indicated.
7. Practice rooming-in (allow mothers and infants to remain together) 24 hours a day.
8. Encourage breastfeeding on demand.
9. Give no artificial nipples or pacifiers to breastfeeding infants.
10. Foster the establishment of breastfeeding support groups and refer mothers to them on discharge from hospital.

The AAP also recommends the following postpartum hospital procedures to increase the duration of breastfeeding:

1. Breastfeed within the first hour after birth.
2. Exclusive breastfeeding.
3. Rooming-in.
4. Avoidance of pacifiers.
5. Receipt of telephone number for support after leaving the hospital.

If all of this goodness doesn’t fill you with pure love for breastmilk, wait until my next post about the benefits of breastfeeding for mama! For more information about breastfeeding or local support groups, please contact me.

I trust all of those breastfeeding babes out there are enjoying mama’s milk, even if they don’t yet understand the amazing things it is doing for them!


Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. Pediatrics. 2012; 129(3) Free full text

Coalition for Improving Maternity Services. Breastfeeding is Priceless. There is no Substitute for for Human Milk.

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