Breastfeeding is when you feed your baby breast milk, usually directly from your breast. It’s also called nursing. Deciding to breastfeed is a personal matter. It’s also one that’s likely to draw opinions from friends and family.
Any amount of breastfeeding, exclusively or in tandem with formula, benefits you and your baby – including lowering her risk of SIDS. And benefits extend beyond the time you breastfeed, reducing your child’s risk of certain illnesses, diseases, and possibly allergies. Breastfeeding also lowers your risk of illness and obesity, as well as postpartum depression.
Scientific studies have shown that breastfeeding is good for a mother’s health and the baby. Here’s a look at some of the most important breastfeeding benefits for you and your baby.
1) Breastfeeding lowers the risk of SIDS
The AAP, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization all recommend breastfeeding to help reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
A large study found that any amount of breastfeeding – it doesn’t need to be exclusive – protects against SIDS. Breastfeeding for at least two months – exclusively or partially in tandem with formula feeding – reduces the risk of SIDS by nearly half. Breastfeeding longer increases the protection.
2. Breast milk helps protect your baby from getting sick now
In the course of breastfeeding, the best-known benefit to your baby’s health is to protect you against a variety of diseases.
Antibodies also called immunoglobulins, help your baby’s immune system guard against pathogens (microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria that cause disease). These antibodies are found in breast milk and can’t be replicated in formula.
The main antibody in breast milk is called secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA). Secretory IgA is present in low quantities in newborns and high amounts in colostrum, the first milk your body produces. Over time, the level of antibodies in your breast milk decreases as your baby’s immune system makes more of its own antibodies.
What’s even more remarkable: Your body makes secretory IgA that’s specific to fighting pathogens you’ve been exposed to. Breast milk passes along this customized protection to your baby.
Stomach viruses, colds, and other respiratory illnesses, urinary tract infections, ear infections, and meningitis occur less often in breastfed babies, and they’re less severe when they do happen. Even babies who are routinely around other children and exposed to more germs (in daycare, for example) get sick less often if they’re breastfed or given expressed breast milk.
3. Breast milk promotes baby’s healthy weight
Breastfeeding promotes healthy weight gain and helps prevent childhood obesity.
One study Source 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 a higher amount of trusted Source 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.
4. Breastfeeding may boost your child’s intelligence
Research suggests a connection between breastfeeding and cognitive development. Multiple studies on the relationship between breastfeeding and cognitive performance have found that breastfed children have higher scores on intelligence tests during childhood and adolescence than those who were not breastfed. This was the case even after factoring out differences in parenting, family environment, and the mothers’ IQ.
Breastfeeding benefits for brain development may be especially important for preemies. In one study, feeding breast milk to babies born prematurely (before 30 weeks) for the first 28 days led to increased brain volume and stronger academic achievement and motor skills at age 7.
Experts say that the emotional bonding that takes place during breastfeeding probably contributes to some of the brainpower benefits, but nutrients in breast milk (especially fatty acids) may play the biggest role.
5. Breastfeeding can lower your stress levels
Many women report feeling relaxed while breastfeeding. That’s because nursing triggers the release of oxytocin – the “love hormone.” Oxytocin promotes nurturing and relaxation, with increased levels linked to lower blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol – the “stress hormone.” (Oxytocin released while nursing also helps your uterus contract after birth, resulting in less postpartum bleeding.)
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