About This Condition
Human breast milk is the best food for newborn babies. In December 1997, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement advocating breast milk as the ideal, exclusive food for babies in the first six months of life. They also recommended that breast-feeding continue for at least 12 months or longer if mutually desired.1
In the United States, only about 50% of new mothers giving birth in a hospital breast-feed their babies. This number declines rapidly, with only about 20% of women still breast-feeding at six months.2 There is a large body of evidence on the benefits of breast-feeding for both mother and infant. With adequate support and good information on preventing some of the common problems associated with breast-feeding, a woman’s chances of successfully breast-feeding her new baby are greatly improved.
Breast feeding provides significant benefits for baby and mother.
Benefits for baby
Human milk contains the ideal balance of nutrients, enzymes, and anti-infective and immune supportive agents for babies.3,4 There are two kinds of breast milk: colostrum and mature milk. Colostrum, which is produced in the first few days after birth, has higher concentrations of protein and immune-enhancing agents and less sugar and fat than mature milk.3 Mature human milk differs greatly from both infant formula and either cow or goat milk. Human milk, made specifically for the nutritional needs of the newborn, is superior to all alternatives.
One significant advantage of human breast milk is its abundance of immune-protective and anti-infective agents, including immunoglobulins (primarily immunoglobulin A, or IgA), lactoferrin, Bifidobacterium bifidum, white blood cells, and other factors. These agents are known to help the newborn fight a wide variety of illnesses. Many scientific studies in the United States and other developed countries have demonstrated the health protective benefits of breast milk.
Breast-feeding has been found to help prevent: diarrhea,6,7,8,9,10 lower respiratory tract infection,11,12,13,14ear infections (otitis media),8,16,17,18,19,20 meningitis,21,22urinary tract infection,23 and other serious infections (botulism, necrotizing enterocolitis, bacteremia).21,22,26,27,28 In addition, breast-feeding may possibly help prevent: sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS),29,30,31 insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus,32,33Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis,34,35cancer (lymphoma),36,37 allergic diseases,38,39,40 and other chronic digestive diseases.41,42,43 Breast-feeding may also enhance cognitive development.44,45
The protein composition of breast milk is perfect for growing babies and is easy for them to digest. Breast milk also provides absorbable nutrients; the iron and zinc found in human milk is extremely easily absorbed (bioavailable) compared with iron and zinc from other foods. When infants are exclusively breast-fed, 50% of the iron is absorbed. By comparison, absorption of iron from cow’s milk and iron-fortified commercial formula is much lower, only 10% and 4%, respectively.46
Breast milk is also quick, easy, and cost-effective. It’s always available and does not need to be prepared, and the cost of providing the necessary additional nutrition to a breast-feeding mother is about half the cost of commercial formula.47,48,4 And breast-feeding promotes bonding, allowing a mother and her baby to be in close physical contact, enhancing the formation of a close mother-baby bond.50
Benefits for mother
Breast-feeding a new baby has many important health benefits for the mother as well. Breast-feeding immediately after childbirth causes the release of a hormone called oxytocin, which causes the uterus to contract. This results in less postpartum (after pregnancy) blood loss and a more rapid return of the uterus to its pre-pregnancy size.51 While breast-feeding, most women will not immediately resume their ovulation and menstrual periods. Delaying the return of ovulation may extend the time between pregnancies.52,53 Women who breast-feed for at least six months lose weight more quickly than women who continue breast-feeding for less than three months.54 And, while breast-feeding can cause a short-term loss of bone density, it also seems to improve the body’s ability to rebuild bones postpartum.55 In addition, women who have breast-fed their babies may have fewer osteoporosis-linked hip fractures after they’ve passed through menopause.56 Breast-feeding has also been associated with a lower risk of ovarian cancer and a reduced risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women.57,58