A woman’s body naturally produces milk when she has a baby, but it’s the mother’s choice whether she wants to breastfeed or bottle feed the child. There are many benefits to breastfeeding, however, for both the mother and the baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding babies for six months, followed by continuing to breastfeed while introducing age-appropriate foods for at least the rest of the baby's first year.
During pregnancy and right after giving birth, a woman’s body produces colostrum, a thick, yellow milk. The baby gets only small amounts of this first milk during each feeding, but it’s just enough for his stomach to handle. Colostrum is low in fat but high in protein, carbohydrates and other nutrients your baby needs. It helps the baby to pass stools easily and aids in preventing jaundice.
Newborn babies' stomachs are tiny and often sensitive. Breast milk is easier for most babies to digest than store-bought formula. This is especially true for premature babies. Formula is made from cow’s milk or soy. The proteins in formula are more difficult on the baby’s digestive system than those found in breast milk, and babies need time to adjust to digesting formula, which is typically not the case with breast milk.
Immune System Benefits
Babies who are breastfed reap a number of health benefits. They are less likely to need future orthodontic treatment and have better jaw alignment. Breastfeeding can also help to prevent diseases of the digestive tract, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as some childhood cancers. Babies who are fed breast milk rather than formula tend to be leaner and have a decreased risk of developing obesity as a adolescent or adult. Other health benefits for breast-fed babies include a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, asthma and respiratory infections.
Benefits for Mothers
Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding. Mothers who breastfeed are at a decreased risk for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and depression than those who feed their babies formula. WomensHealth.org reports that there might be a link between breastfeeding and losing pregnancy weight, though more evidence is needed to support this claim. Aside from the health benefits, breastfeeding is easier on mothers. After a mother and baby establish a breastfeeding routine, there’s no bottle preparation or cleaning. Breastfeeding is free, whereas formula can cost hundreds of dollars per month. Additionally, breastfeeding is a way for a mother to form a close bond with her baby. The skin-to-skin contact during breastfeeding can boost oxytocin in the mother, which makes her feel more relaxed and helps the milk flow.
The longer a baby breastfeeds, the greater the health benefits for mother and child. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health says that 72 percent of women in the United States start off breastfeeding, but by the time the baby is 3 months old, only 40 percent of them are still exclusively breastfeeding. Additionally, less than 14 percent of women exclusively breastfeed their babies for six months. African-American mothers, as well as those of a low socioeconomic status, those who are younger and those who are less educated have the lowest rates of breastfeeding.
- WomensHealth.gov: Breastfeeding
- National Resource Defense Council: Benefits of Breastfeeding
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health: Spread the Word about the Benefits of Breastfeeding
- Ask Dr. Sears: 7 Ways Breastfed Babies Become Healthier Adults
- La Leche League: What is Colostrum? How Does it Benefit My Baby?
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