Breast milk is the recommended form of nutrition for a newborn. As far as possible mothers should breastfeed as there are benefits for both the baby and the mother. However, it is not always possible or advisable for mothers to breastfeed at times. In these cases, a baby milk formula suffices to ensure that the baby is adequately nourished. Breastfeeding not only helps mother and baby to bond but breast milk also increases baby’s immune defenses and offers a host of other benefits for baby both in early life and later.
How long should a baby be breastfed?
Ideally, a baby should be exclusively on breast milk for the first six months of his/her life. Breastfeeding is advised but if not possible or practical then expressing the breast milk and then bottle feeding it to baby will suffice. Water, fruit juices and other fluids are not necessary within these first six months of life. Breast milk has all the nutrition that the baby’s body requires and the breast milk production should increase accordingly as baby’s needs increases.
Some mothers do opt to breastfeed for longer than six months and there is some research that suggests that there may be added benefit for the baby. However, baby needs to be introduced to solid foods after six months of age and breast milk should not be the only source of nutrition at this age. While it is not entirely uncommon for some mothers to breastfeed beyond 1 year of life, there is little evidence to suggest that this offers any significant nutritional benefit.
How Does Breastfeeding Help Babies
The benefits of breast milk are vast and scientific research is still discovering new benefits to breast milk. Breastfeeding specifically has these benefits for the baby.
- Baby can be breastfed immediately once hungry. Provided that the mother is around there is no need for waiting or preparation of milk formula.
- Breast milk is at the ideal temperature within the breast which means that there is no risk of hot milk burning baby or of cold milk being unplatable to baby.
- Breastfeeding ensures that the breastmilk is transferred from the breast to baby without the risk of becoming contaminated with bacteria, viruses or other infectious agents.
- Breast milk contains immune components which are transferred from the mother to child. This is particularly important within the first days to weeks of life as the baby’s immune is still immature. Colostrum in particular is rich in immune factors.
- The nutrients within breast milk are easily digested and better tolerated by the baby’s body. Usually there is no risk of allergies and breast milk may actually reduce the risk of allergies later in life.
- Respiratory diseases and diarrheal illnesses are less common in children who consume breast milk. There is also evidence that autoimmune conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diabetes and even cancers like leukemia are less common in adulthood if a person drank breast milk as a newborn.
- Breastfed babies are less likely to die from ‘cot death’ (SIDS).
- Better brain development, a higher IQ and even improved academic abilities have also been attributed to breast milk in various studies.
- Breastfeeding helps calm down babies and assists with a better quality sleep. This in turn can contribute to a host of benefits related to growth, development and the risk of developing certain diseases.
- There are a host of emotional benefits that have also been associated with breastfeeding which could also be factors in various mental health conditions later in life.
There are many more benefits that have been attributed to breast milk, such as a lower risk of obesity in childhood and adulthood.
Read more on breastfeeding during pregnancy.
How Does Breastfeeding Help Mothers
The benefits of breastfeeding are not limited to the baby. There are significant and at times little known benefits to the mother as well. These benefits should encourage mothers to breastfeed or at least express breast milk daily to nourish the baby, in addition to the benefits to the baby.
- Breastfeeding mothers can lose pregnancy weight faster after childbirth.
- The uterus contracts faster with breastfeeding due to the hormones secreted during lactation. This prevents excessive bleeding immediately after and in the days following delivery.
- Bonding between mother and baby is usually enhanced with breastfeeding and there is a positive effective on the emotional state of both mother and baby. To some extent this can be a factor in preventing postpartum depression that may start days, weeks or even months after childbirth.
- Mothers, especially those who are the financial contributor, may find that the lower cost associated with breastfeeding helps to prevent or alleviate financial stress.
- Studies suggest that breastfeeding may have a protective effect on the development of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. This may in part be due to the estrogen suppression during lactation.
- Breastfeeding blocks ovulation for a period of time after the baby’s birth. This acts as a natural form of contraception. Ultimately it can reduce the stress on the mother that may occur with having another baby too soon after the previous child.
- Studies have shown that the risk of developing diabetes is also reduced in some cases where the mother breastfed, especially where there was a history of gestational diabetes.
- Although calcium stores can be drained as a result of breastfeeding, osteoporosis (decrease in bone density) is unlikely to occur if a mother has an adequate balanced diet. In fact breastfeeding may decrease teh risk of osteoporosis later in life.
Read more on breastfeeding and breast cancer.
Breasting for a Short Time
Some mothers opt not to breastfeed as they feel it may not be practical to sustain breastfeeding for a prolonged period. For example, if a mother has to return to a demanding job and/or where there may be long periods away from the baby then starting breastfeeding seems impractical.
However, a short period of breastfeeding can still be beneficial for baby and mother, even if it is for a few weeks or a month. The benefits of breastfeeding even for a short period are irreplacable and while it is not always possible for all mothers, every attempt should be made to breastfeed for as long as it can be sustained.