The Very Real Benefits of Breast Milk

ColleenRD, CD, CBS

The first 1000 days of your baby’s life, from the first day of pregnancy up to 2 years of life, represent a critical period of growth and development and gives parents an opportunity to provide an environment that will help support life-long health. This includes the nutrition a baby receives during this period which can have a resounding impact. The most complete form of nutrition for infants, breast milk, offers a range of benefits for health, growth, immunity, and development. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively for at least six months (and even up to two years and beyond) because of the long-lasting benefits of breastfeeding for both your wife and your baby. Many studies — whether focusing on the properties of the milk itself or its effects on babies’ short and long-term health, confirm the significance of these recommendations.

Breast not only is the “best” for baby, but it’s also the norm — it’s how babies have been fed since the beginning. One of the most important decisions parents can make during these first 1000 days of your baby’s life is to choose to breastfeed your baby.

What exactly is in breastmilk?

It’s a unique nutritional source that is easy to digest and provides the perfect balance of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and nutrients to promote the growth and development of your baby. Breastmilk contains hundreds of invaluable substances in human milk — probably more that have yet to be identified — including:

  • antibodies and white blood cells
  • probiotics (as many as 600 different species!)
  • hormones
  • growth factors
  • antibacterial properties
  • oligosaccharides (special carbohydrates that encourage the growth of friendly bacteria in the digestive system)
  • long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (important for the development of their brain, eyes and nervous system)
  • cytokines (special proteins involved in cell communication and immune system formation)
  • and many, many more.

Breastfeeding not only provides your baby with tailored nutrition, but it’s available on demand, day or night, and it’s free of charge. The health benefits go well beyond convenience and cost, however, and will have a far-reaching impact on both your partner and your baby long after the breastfeeding journey has ended.

Scientific research suggests a substantial number of potential health benefits from breastfeeding. These benefits include:

  • Decreased rates of sudden infant death syndrome in the first year of life (an effect that becomes even stronger when breastfeeding is exclusive)
  • Lower postneonatal infant mortality rates (a reduction of approximately 21% in the U.S.)
  • Decreased risk of baby developing eczema, asthma, and food allergies later in life.
  • Slightly enhanced performance on tests of cognitive development.
  • Lower incidence of infectious diseases, such as diarrhea, pneumonia, ear infection, respiratory tract illness bacterial meningitis, urinary tract infection, bacteremia, necrotizing enterocolitis, and late onset sepsis in preterm infants
  • Improved dental health with less risk of tooth decay
  • Reduction of the risk of obesity later in life when exclusively breastfed for at least 4 months
  • Decreased rates of type 1 and type 2 diabetes mellitus, lymphoma, leukemia and Hodgkin disease in older children and adults

And if this wasn’t enough, breastfeeding also exposes your baby to the varying tastes and flavor profiles of the foods your partner eats, which can influence food acceptance and preferences when she herself begins to eat food, and throughout her lifetime as well.

Your baby isn’t the only one who benefits from breastfeeding. The health benefits for the mama are also significant and include:

  • A unique and powerful physical and emotional connection between her and baby – breastfeeding is the one parenting behavior only the mother can do
  • A non-verbal communication and bond with baby that only grows to support an ever more intimate and effortless mutual exchange, especially if mom stays present while nursing with lots of touching, talking, singing, and eye contact
  • Stimulation of the body to produce antibodies in your milk which in turn helps your baby stay well or recover faster if sick
  • Help with a return to pre-pregnancy weight by increasing your energy requirements, promoting the mobilization of fat stores, and quickens your uterus to contract to its pre-pregnancy size
  • Decreased risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
  • Possibly decreased risk of hip fractures and osteoporosis in the post- menopausal period.
  • May delay the return of your menstrual cycle, which will help maintain iron status and may act as a form of contraception to decrease your chances of getting pregnant again (MAY being the key word – it is still possible to become pregnant while breastfeeding)

What to Do

1. Educate yourself on the benefits of breastfeeding

If you are expecting, it’s never too early to learn about breastfeeding to help you and your partner make informed decisions about how you’d like to feed your baby.

2. Plan ahead for breastfeeding success

Before giving birth, familiarize yourself with breastfeeding, latching and what to expect in the first few weeks of nursing. You’ll both be swept up in lots of excitement when your baby is born, so having some initial familiarity with these concepts will help with the transition.

3. Know where to find breastfeeding support

Familiarize yourself with your hospital or birth center’s onsite breastfeeding support as well as support you can access once you’re back home. Support can include lactation counselors or consultants and breastfeeding hotlines. If you are delivering in a hospital, find out if the hospital supports The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI).

4. Identify a local lactation consultant in advance of the birth

Breastfeeding is a new skill for both you and your baby, whether it’s your first or your fourth. While you’ll learn and find your way together, you still may need or simply want additional support, or a home visit. It’s best to locate these helpful individuals in advance! Chat live with a Happy Mama Mentor (our team of registered dietitians and lactation specialists) if you need additional help the Happy Mama Mentors can help you locate  a local lactation counselor or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC).

5. Aim to breastfeed exclusively (breast milk only) until your baby is about 6 months old

At approximately 6 months, you can begin to introduce solid foods as a complementary feeding method while continuing to breastfeed as the benefits continue well through the first and second years.

6. If you are unable or choose not to breastfeed, chat with a Happy Expert who can help guide and support you in making the best feeding plan for you and your family

Keep in mind the hierarchy of infant feeding choices for a full term baby according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:(1) breastfeeding; (2) mother’s own milk expressed and given to her child in some other way; (3) milk from Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) or state licensed milk bank (4) cow-based milk formula; and (5) soy-based formula.