Benefits of Breastfeeding: For Baby, Mama, and the Earth
The benefits of breastfeeding are so many; and why wouldn't they be? Breastfeeding is the way we (and other mammals) have been nourishing our young since we've been mammals. If it wasn't the best way, we probably would've been extinct millenia ago.
There are rare cases when breastfeeding doesn't work for mamas and babies, but almost always breastfeeding is the absolute best choice. If you're struggling to breastfeed, please know that it is NORMAL to encounter challenges. Don't get discouraged or feel ashamed. Most breastfeeding moms encountered problems, and almost all of them can be overcome with support from a lactation consultant. You can find a consultant by visiting La Leche League. They wil be able to problem-solve things like latching issues, painful breastfeeding, and more, and will be the ones qualified to tell you if there is a true problem. Don't give up! Below we'll look at why it's important to work hard to make breastfeeding work for you, your baby, and the environment.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Babies
This is really where the most data is. We know from years of research that "breast is best". Let's look at why and how:
Babies need colostrum first:
Colostrum is the thick, extremely nutrient- and antibody-dense first breastmilk. Your newborn's belly can only hold a tiny bit of food and needs something gentler than formula. Colostrum is absolutely perfect to fit that need and changes at just the right time.
Breastmilk is gentle on the tummy:
Easy-to-digest is important, especially for premature babies, but also as your baby grows. Until their digestive system is stronger and ready to start sampling whole foods, breastmilk assimiliates quickly and easily into your child's system.
Your breastmilk changes to perfectly meet your babies needs:
After colostrum, comes the mature breastmilk, which has the perfect amount of fat, protein, water and nutrients for your infant. But one of the coolest benefits of breastfeeding is that this breastmilk continues to change based on your baby's biological needs. And it happens quickly: If your baby has a cold, your breastmilk will automatically begin to supply more antibodies to fight that cold!
Breastfeeding protects against illness and disease: Because your breastmilk always changes to meet your child's needs, this protection is not something formula makers can match. Just some of the many health benefits of breastfeeding for your child:
- Lower incidence of acute diarrheal disease1
- Protection against influenza2
- Responds to vaccines better3,4
- Increased immunity overall5, 6
- 20 times less likelihood of NEC (necrotizing enternal colitis)7
- Significantly decreased risk of ear infection8
- Increased protection against Herpes Simplex9
- Half as likely to develop bronchitis10
- Protects against wheezing and respiratory tract illnesses11
- Lower incidence of RSV (respiratory syncytical virus)12
- Seven times less sensitive to secondhand smoke13
- Better gastrointestinal health14
- Protective against SIDS15,16
- Less likelihood of reflux17
- Decreased incidence of multiple sclerosis18
- Less liklihood of allergies or eczema19,20
- Higher IQ andcognitive development21,22,23
- Increased dental health24
- 34& lower chance of developing diabetes25
- Between 1-9 times less likely to develop cancers later in life26
- Fewer respiratory infections with long-term breastfeeding than with short-term27
- And the research goes on!
No worries about contamination:
No concerns over formula recalls or worries of contamination. You have complete awareness of what goes in your baby's belly.
Less likelihood of abuse:
Along with that strong attachment comes that breatsfeeding promotes a healthy relationship with a decreased chance of child abuse.
Stronger mother-child bond:
One of the benefits of breastfeeding that deserves more attention is the emotional attachment formed between mama and baby. The sense of attachment, security, comfort and love a child feels early in their life creates a foundation later on for strong, confident and happy children to thrive.
And an increase in awareness of healthy habits:
I see this one a lot. As new moms learn about the benefits of breastfeeding and experience the wonder of feeding their child, they start to bring a greater awareness to other lifestyle choices and habits that affect their health, from eating more organic foods,
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mothers
Although the benefits of breastfeeding for the baby are the most research and talked about, we can't leave out the advantages of breastfeeding for the mother:
Breastfeeding decreases the risk of breast cancer:
And the longer you breastfeed, the lower your risk becomes!28,29,30,31
Protects against multiple other cancers:
Including uterine, ovarian and endometrial.32,33,34
In diabetic women, insulin requirements tend to be significantly lower.35
Multiple other health benefits:
Such as decreased risk of osteoporosis36, promoting postpartum weight loss37, less anxiety38, increased delay in fertility (spacing between pregnancies)39 and decreased chance of postpartum depression.40
And it's so much simpler:
In addition to the health benefits of breastfeeding for the mother, there is also no juggling a hungry baby in one arm while trying to warm the water and mix the formula with the other hand. Breastmilk is always the right temperature, always available, clean and ready-to-provide, and replenishes itself without a trip to the store. Because you have enough to do!
And there is still so much studying to do on the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers (and even the emotional or secondary impacts of breastfeeding on other family members and the home environment). But again, we can trust that Nature knows what it's doing...even if science hasn't researched it yet.
Benefits of Breastfeeding, Socially and Environmentally
Let's look at the ways breastfeeding makes sense socially and ecologically.
- Breastfeeding is affordable: Yes, mama's appetite might mean she eats a little more. But that's nothing compared to the average expense of infant formula.
- Decrease in other costs, personally and socially: Along with direct decreased cost of breastfeeding, don't forget to look at the decrease in health costs after the decrease in health risks listed above for both mother and baby (trips to the doctor, medications, sick days, etc). According to Wisconsin State Breastfeeding Coalition, there would be an annual total health cost savings of almost $31 million - just in one state and that's only for modest and short-term breastfeeding rates!
- Fewer resources used: Breastfeeding requires a breast. Everything else is optional. But formula requires the development and testing of new formulas (think: buildings, equipment, driving to and from, etc), the manufacturing of packaging (think: buildings, shipping of raw resources, manufacturing, shipping of packaging, pollution, driving to and from, etc), manufacturing and packing the infant formula (again, buildings, manufacturing pollution, etc), shipping emissions to the local store, and then personal driving emissions to the store to purchase more. Countless greenhouse gases just in the production of infant formula. Then there is the same development and production of bottles, nipples, cleaning supplies, etc. It's easy to see why the footprint on formula feeding is so big.
- Less waste created: One of the benefits of breastfeeding is that there is no additional waste created: no formula containers, no (or fewer) old, broken, or lost bottles, etc. But also no (or much less) waste of water or other resources needed to create or use formula, clean bottles, warm water and so on.
- And physically and emotionally healthy people make a better world: When we feel good we make better choices for ourselves, treat others in healthier ways, and are more likely to make a positive impact on the world with what we do (or don't do). And the world could use a lot more of that.
It's easy to see why breastfeeding is just an all-around better choice, for your child, you, and the world we live in.
Again, it can be hard for many women, so please don't hesitate to reach out for free support from lactation consultants near you. To learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding or get support in breastfeeding, check out the Le Leche League website.