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Any amount of breastfeeding, exclusively or in tandem with formula, benefits you and your baby – including lowering her risk of SIDS. And benefits extend beyond the time you breastfeed, reducing your child's risk of certain illnesses, diseases, and possibly allergies. Breastfeeding also lowers your risk of illness and obesity, as well as postpartum depression.
Breastfeeding benefits extend well beyond basic nutrition. In addition to containing all the vitamins and nutrients your infant needs, breast milk is packed with disease-fighting substances that protect your baby from illness.
That's one reason the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months – and any amount of breastfeeding is beneficial, including in combination with formula feeding.
Scientific studies have shown that breastfeeding is good for a mother's health, too. Here's a look at some of the most important breastfeeding benefits for you and your baby.
Breastfeeding lowers the risk of SIDS
The AAP, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization all recommend breastfeeding to help reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
A large study found that any amount of breastfeeding – it doesn't need to be exclusive – provides protection against SIDS. Breastfeeding for at least two months – exclusively or partially in tandem with formula feeding – reduces the risk of SIDS by nearly half. Breastfeeding longer increases the protection.
Breast milk helps protect your baby from getting sick now
The best-established health benefit of breastfeeding is protecting your baby from a range of illnesses during the time that you're nursing.
Antibodies, also called immunoglobulins, help your baby's immune system guard against pathogens (microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria that cause disease). These antibodies are found in breast milk and can't be replicated in formula.
The main antibody in breast milk is called secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA). Secretory IgA is present in low quantities in newborns and high amounts in colostrum, the first milk your body produces. Over time, the level of antibodies in your breast milk decreases as your baby's immune system makes more of its own antibodies.
What's even more remarkable: Your body makes secretory IgA that's specific to fighting pathogens you've been exposed to. Breast milk passes along this customized protection to your baby.
Stomach viruses, colds and other respiratory illnesses, urinary tract infections, ear infections, and meningitis occur less often in breastfed babies, and they're less severe when they do happen. Even babies who are routinely around other children and exposed to more germs (in daycare, for example) get sick less often if they're breastfed or given expressed breast milk.
Breastfeeding helps protect your child from getting sick later
Breastfeeding's protection against illnesses and diseases lasts beyond when your baby is nursing.
Studies have shown that breastfeeding can reduce a child's risk of developing certain childhood cancers, such as leukemia. Scientists don't know exactly how breast milk reduces the risk, but they think antibodies in breast milk may give a baby's immune system a boost.
Breastfeeding may help your child avoid some diseases that strike later in life, such as type 1 and type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and inflammatory bowel disease. In fact, preemies given breast milk as babies are less likely to have high blood pressure by the time they're teenagers. Researchers have also found that breastfeeding protects against Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
Breastfeeding may lower your baby's risk of developing allergies and eczema
Babies born to families with a history of allergies garner some protection from allergies when compared to babies who are fed cow's-milk or soy formula.
Studies show that babies who were at risk of allergy and exclusively breastfed for at least four months had a lower risk of milk allergy, eczema, and wheezing early in life. We don't know yet if the protection is long term or if it also affects babies who are not at risk of allergy.
Breastfeeding may boost your child's intelligence
Research suggests a connection between breastfeeding and cognitive development. Multiple studies on the relationship between breastfeeding and cognitive performance have found that breastfed children have higher scores on intelligence tests during childhood and adolescence than those who were not breastfed. This was the case even after factoring out differences in parenting, family environment, and the mothers' IQ.
Breastfeeding benefits for brain development may be especially important for preemies. In one study, feeding breast milk to babies who were born very prematurely (before 30 weeks) for the first 28 days led to increased brain volume as well as stronger academic achievement and motor skills at age 7.
Experts say that the emotional bonding that takes place during breastfeeding probably contributes to some of the brainpower benefits, but nutrients in breast milk (especially fatty acids) may play the biggest role.
Breastfeeding may reduce your risk of postpartum depression
Researchers continue to look at the relationship between breastfeeding and postpartum depression (PPD). Some studies report that breastfeeding may protect against or help women recover more quickly from symptoms of PPD.
Other studies show that you may be at higher risk of postpartum depression if you have breastfeeding problems or want to nurse but aren't able to. One large study found that women who planned to breastfeed and went on to do so had the lowest risk of PPD, while the highest risk was found in women who had planned to breastfeed but did not.
You can be treated for depression and still nurse your baby. Talk to your healthcare provider about safe treatments for PPD while breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding can lower your stress levels
Many women report feeling relaxed while breastfeeding. That's because nursing triggers the release of oxytocin – the "love hormone." Oxytocin promotes nurturing and relaxation, with increased levels linked to lower blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol – the "stress hormone." (Oxytocin released while nursing also helps your uterus contract after birth, resulting in less postpartum bleeding.)
Breastfeeding reduces your risk of some illnesses
Research indicates that breastfeeding may reduce a woman's risk of developing:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Cardiovascular disease (thanks to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels)
- Some cancers
The longer women breastfeed, the more they're protected against breast and ovarian cancer. There's also evidence that breastfeeding protects against endometrial cancer. For breast cancer, nursing for at least a year appears to have the most protective effect.
It's not entirely clear how breastfeeding helps protect against breast cancer, 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. Researchers think the effect on ovarian cancer may be related to estrogen suppression as well.
Breastfeeding reduces your risk of obesity
Mothers who breastfeed have lower rates of obesity.
What's the minimum amount of time I can breastfeed my baby and still give her the health benefits?
It's worth breastfeeding your baby for any amount of time that you can manage, because your milk provides some protection from the get-go. Your baby begins reaping benefits from the first drop of colostrum.
If you get the flu while you're breastfeeding or a flu shot while you're breastfeeding, for example, your baby will receive antibodies from your breast milk before she's old enough to receive a flu vaccine at 6 months. (She would also receive protection if you got the flu or a flu shot while pregnant.)
The benefits also increase over time. Exclusive breastfeeding – meaning no solid food, formula, or water – for at least six months seems to offer the most protection. Studies have found that babies who are exclusively breastfed for six months or longer had more protection against illness than babies who were breastfed for shorter time periods.
Where can I get help with breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding is natural – but that doesn't necessarily mean it's easy. Don't hesitate to contact your healthcare provider or a certified lactation consultant if you need help or support.
our site resources include our Breastfeeding Problem Solver, breastfeeding support group, and videos with solutions to common breastfeeding problems, including:
- Sore and cracked nipples
- Clogged ducts
- Low milk supply