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Rachel O'Reilly


By Aaryn Leineke

Breastmilk is BEST for your baby. The immeasurable benefits of breastfeeding are not just for your baby, but for your body and health as well. Below are scientifically-supported facts on why breastfeeding is so important.

It’s best to solely breastfeed for the first six months, if all is well with your body and lactation. It’s great to breastfeed as much as you can and supplement part-time with organic, high-quality formula (or donated breast milk). It's good to feed your baby formula if you are not able to produce milk, and it's wonderful to consider donated breast milk if you are willing to do the research and build an amazing, special community of contacts, such as Human Milk for Human Babies or Mothers Milk Bank.

However you decide or are able to feed your baby, know that there are many who believe breastfeeding is a beautiful thing and there is nothing to hide. Realize our breasts are attached to us for one reason alone: to provide food and comfort for our babies at any time and any place. 

Studies from around the world have proved the health benefits of breastfeeding. The risk of stomach virus, lower respiratory illness, ear infection and meningitis occurs less often in breastfed babies, and are often less severe when it does. Exclusive breastfeeding (meaning no solid food, formula or water) for at least six months seems to offer the most protection.

Breast milk is a unique nutritional source that cannot be adequately replaced by any other food, including infant formula. Although pollutants can accumulate in breast milk, it remains superior to infant formula from the perspective of overall health of both mother and child.

Infants are fragile and susceptible to disease, partly because their bodies are not yet fully developed. They must be treated with special care and given adequate nourishment. Infant formulas mimic a few of the nutritional components of breast milk, but formula cannot duplicate the vast and constantly changing array of essential nutrients in human milk. Nevertheless, breastfeeding is often devalued; both in the United States and abroad, and in many parts of the world it must compete with relentless advertising by infant formula companies. 

The main immunological key is a substance called secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA), present at large concentrations in colostrum, the first milk your body produces for your baby (secretory IgA is present at lower concentrations in mature breast milk). The substance guards against invading germs by forming a protective layer on the mucous membranes in your baby's intestines, nose and throat.
Your breast milk is specifically tailored to your baby. Your body responds to pathogens (virus and bacteria) that are in your body and makes secretory IgA specific to those pathogens, creating protection for your baby based on whatever you're exposed to.

Benefits for Baby:

  • Breastfeeding's protection against illness lasts beyond your baby's breastfeeding stage, too. Studies have shown that breastfeeding can reduce a child's risk of developing certain childhood cancers. Scientists do not know exactly how breast milk reduces the risk, but they believe antibodies in breast milk may give a baby's immune system a boost.

  • Breastfeeding may also help children avoid a host of diseases that strike later in life, such as Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and inflammatory bowel disease (IBS). In fact, preemies given breast milk are less likely to have high blood pressure by the time they're teenagers. For babies who aren't breastfed, researchers have documented a link between lack of breastfeeding and later-development of Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

  • Breastfeeding can possibly protect your baby from developing allergies. Studies have shown babies who are fed a formula based on cow's milk or soy tend to have more allergic reactions. Scientists believe immune factors, such as secretory IgA, help prevent allergic reactions to food by providing a protective layer to a baby's intestinal tract. Without this protection, inflammation can develop and the wall of the intestine can become "leaky." This allows undigested proteins to cross the gut, where they can cause an allergic reaction and other health problems.

Benefits for Mama:

  • Breastfeeding can reduce your stress level and your risk of postpartum depression.* The National Institutes of Health reviewed more than 9,000 study abstracts and concluded that women who didn't breastfeed, or who stopped breastfeeding early on, had a higher risk of postpartum depression. *Note: if you're being treated for depression, you can still breastfeed your baby. Your healthcare practitioner can help you identify safe ways to treat your depression while nursing.

  • Breastfeeding may reduce your risk of some types of cancer. Numerous studies have found that the longer women breastfeed, the more they're protected against breast and ovarian cancer (for non-smokers only). For breast cancer, nursing for at least a year appears to have the most protective effect. It's not clear how breastfeeding helps, but it may have to do with the structural changes in breast tissue caused by breastfeeding, and the fact that lactation suppresses the amount of estrogen your body produces.

  • Studies are finding new benefits of breastfeeding all the time. For example, the May 2010 issue of “Pediatrics” published a study showing that babies who are breastfed are less likely to have fevers after their immunizations than babies who are formula fed.

Breastfeeding is natural - but that doesn't necessarily mean it's easy. Chapped, cracked nipples, rock-hard breasts, constant leaking and milk-soaked bras are just a few of the side-effects; it takes a lot of dedication to breastfeed. But the benefits outweigh the challenges! Don't hesitate to contact your healthcare provider or a certified lactation consultant if you need help or support.