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Parenting Resource Library

Benefits of Breastfeeding

What are the benefits of breastfeeding for the baby?
Breast milk provides the ideal amounts of protein, sugar, fat and most vitamins a baby needs for healthy growth and development. Breast milk also contains substances called antibodies that help protect a baby from many illnesses. Studies show that breastfed babies are less likely than formula-fed babies to have ear infections, lower-respiratory infections (such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis), meningitis, urinary tract infections and diarrhea (1). Studies also suggest that breastfed babies may be less likely than formula-fed babies to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) (1). Breast milk is easy for a baby to digest, so the baby may have less gas and discomfort than a formula-fed baby.

The health benefits of breastfeeding can last a lifetime. Studies suggest that children and adults who are breastfed are less likely to develop asthma, diabetes and certain cancers (leukemia, lymphoma and Hodgkin’s disease) (1). Babies who are breastfed may be less likely to become obese later in life (1).

Breastfeeding also may enhance brain development. Some studies suggest that children who are breastfed may score higher on tests of cognitive ability than children who are fed formula (1).

What are the benefits of breastfeeding for the mother?
Breastfeeding leads to increased levels of a hormone called oxytocin that causes the new mother’s uterus to contract. This contraction helps reduce bleeding after delivery and shrink the uterus to its pre-pregnancy size. Breastfeeding also delays the return of a woman’s menstrual period. Because it is difficult to determine when fertility will return in a breastfeeding mother, a woman and her partner who do not want another baby right away should use birth control when they start having sex again.

Breastfeeding mothers burn more calories than women who don’t breastfeed, so they tend to return to their pre-pregnancy weight more quickly. This is true even though a breastfeeding woman should eat 500 extra calories a day to keep up her milk supply and meet her own nutritional needs (2). Studies suggest that breastfeeding may help reduce a woman’s risk of type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and ovarian cancer (1, 3).

How do breast milk and formula differ?
Breast milk contains all the ingredients that a human baby needs to thrive. Formulas based on cow’s milk or soy include many of the same nutrients, but not all. Formula makers cannot duplicate all of the ingredients in breast milk, because some of the ingredients are not known.

Breast milk includes antibodies and other immune-system substances that help protect a baby from illness. It contains growth factors, hormones and other substances that help a baby grow and develop at an appropriate rate. Breast milk also contains fatty acids that appear to promote brain development and, possibly, increase intelligence. Some formula makers add two of these fatty acids—DHA (docohexanoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid)—to their products. However, the long-term benefits of formula enhanced with these fatty acids are not known.

The AAP recommends that all babies, including those who are exclusively breastfed, consume at least 400 international units (IUs) of vitamin D to help prevent a bone-weakening disease called rickets (1). Exclusively breastfed babies are at increased risk for rickets because breast milk is low in vitamin D. Breastfed babies should receive multivitamin drops containing vitamin D starting in the first few days of life (4). Most formula-fed babies get enough vitamin D.

Unlike formula, breast milk changes as a baby develops and provides just the right amount of nutrients and other substances that a baby needs at various stages of development. For example, for the first few days after delivery, a woman’s breasts produce a thick, yellowish form of milk called colostrum. Colostrum is high in proteins and immune substances that the baby needs in the early days of life. After this time, the mother begins to produce greater quantities of a thinner form of milk that is lower in protein and higher in fat. The breast milk of a mother of a premature baby is different from that of a mother of a full-term baby and meets the premature infant’s needs at his specific stage of development.

How long should a woman breastfeed her baby?
The AAP recommends that infants be fed only breast milk (no water, formula, other liquids or solids) for about the first 6 months of life (1). Women should continue to breastfeed their babies for the next six months while solid foods are introduced. They can continue breastfeeding after 12 months as long as mother and baby desire. However, a new mother should keep in mind that breastfeeding for even a short period of time provides health benefits for her baby.

Who should not breastfeed their baby?
Breastfeeding is recommended for the vast majority of mothers and babies. However, there are a few exceptions. Women whose babies have galactosemia, an uncommon genetic disorder of body chemistry, should not breastfeed (1, 5). Babies with galactosemia cannot process the sugar in milk (including breast milk and dairy-based formulas) and may die or develop mental retardation if they eat any milk products. Babies with galactosemia must be fed a non-dairy formula. Newborn screening tests detect most babies with galactosemia soon after birth.

Women in the United States who have HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes AIDS) should not breastfeed because they can pass the virus on to their babies in their breast milk (1, 5). This recommendation may differ in some developing countries. Women who have some other infectious diseases like human T-cell lymphotropic virus or active, untreated tuberculosis should not breastfeed. A woman with an illness, such as the flu, usually does not need to interrupt breastfeeding because she passes along antibodies to her baby that help protect him from the illness.

Women who have had breast surgery, such as breast enlargement or reduction, should discuss breastfeeding with their health care providers. Most are able to breastfeed, though some may have problems, such as not being able to produce enough milk.

Most women who take medications for chronic health conditions (such as high blood pressure or asthma) or antibiotics for common illnesses (such as strep throat) can safely breastfeed. While small amounts of many medications do enter breast milk, most do not harm the baby. However, a woman always should check with her health care provider and her baby’s provider before taking a medication (including over-the-counter and herbal preparations) to see if it is safe to take while breastfeeding. The provider may switch a woman to a safer medication. Or the provider may advise her to take her medication soon after breastfeeding, so most of the medication is out of her system before the next feeding.

A small number of medications are believed to pose a risk to a breastfeeding baby. A woman who takes these medications probably needs to stop breastfeeding temporarily and formula-feed her baby as long as she takes the medication. These drugs include cancer drugs, radioactive compounds (used with certain imaging tests) and certain drugs used to treat migraine headaches (1, 2). Illicit drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines, also pose a risk to breastfeeding babies, as may large amounts of alcohol (1). Women should avoid these substances while breastfeeding.

Women who are vegetarians can breastfeed their babies, but they should discuss their diets with their health care provider. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some vegetarians may need to take a vitamin supplement containing vitamin B12 (6). Without supplementation, breastfed babies of women who eat no animal products may not get enough vitamin B12, which may cause brain abnormalities.

Do premature or sick babies benefit from breastfeeding?
Many premature or sick babies cannot feed from the breast right away. However, the benefits of breast milk, including protection from many diseases, may be especially crucial for these babies. A recent study found that very premature babies who received breast milk soon after birth had higher mental development scores at 30 months and were less likely to be rehospitalized than premature babies who did not receive breast milk (7). Breast milk may need to be supplemented to meet the nutritional needs of small premature babies.

Mothers can use a breast pump to express their milk so that the milk can be fed to their babies through a tube or with a dropper. By pumping her breasts, a mother keeps up her milk supply so that her baby can breastfeed when he is stronger.

How many women breastfeed their babies?
In 2005-2006, about 77 percent of women in the United States breastfed their babies for any length of time (8). However, less than 40 percent of women were still breastfeeding their babies at 6 months of age (8).

Where can a woman find information and assistance with breastfeeding?
Pregnant woman and their partners should consider taking a breastfeeding class. Many hospitals offer these classes. After delivery, the postpartum nurse and the baby’s health care provider can help assure that breastfeeding is going smoothly before the woman leaves the hospital. When done correctly, breastfeeding should not hurt. Many hospitals have a lactation consultant on staff to provide assistance.

Once home, a mother should discuss breastfeeding questions with her baby’s health care provider or a lactation consultant. Moms who are having problems with breastfeeding should ask for assistance when they need it. Most women can breastfeed successfully, though some women need a little extra support to get started.

All breastfed babies should be checked by a health care provider at 3 to 5 days of age (1). The provider examines the baby to check his health and to see if he has jaundice (yellowing of the skin, which occasionally requires treatment). The provider also weighs the baby to make sure he is gaining enough weight.

The following organizations provide information on breastfeeding:

•American Academy of Pediatrics (847)-434-4000
•La Leche League International (800) 525-3243
•International Lactation Consultant Association (919) 861-5577
•American College of Nurse-Midwives
•Breastfeeding.com, an online community of mothers and nursing professionals
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