There’s little doubt if you’re a new or expectant mother you’ve heard the term ‘breast is best’.
If you’ve joined any parenting groups or online forums, you might also see other terms like ‘fed is best’ or ‘informed is best’.
What do these terms really mean? Is breast best? Does ‘fed is best’ mean formula is better? What does being informed mean?
In developed countries, we have access to commercial infant formula and clean drinking water so it’s safe for mothers to use infant formula as an alternative to breast milk.
It’s also normal for us to see babies bottle fed more often than we see babies breastfed.
This makes it hard to understand breastfeeding is the biologically normal way to feed a baby.
Human babies were designed to drink human milk.
With that in mind, it is easy to understand there are substantial benefits of breastfeeding.
Here are the 5 greatest benefits of breastfeeding:
#1. Increased protection against illness
One of the huge benefits of breastfeeding is protection against illness. Breast milk contains antibodies and good bacteria to protect your baby and help prevent sickness.
Breastfed babies have fewer incidences of illness and hospitalisation.
According to Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), not breastfeeding increases the risk of:
- Gastrointestinal infections by 178%
- Hospitalisation for lower respiratory tract infections within the first year by 257%
- Ear infections by 100%.
#2. Decreased risk of allergies
Our standards of hygiene today mean babies are exposed to less dirt, and fewer bacteria and other germs than they once were.
It also means they have less exposure to a wide range of healthy bacteria.
Fewer healthy bacteria in the gut means an increased risk of allergies.
Babies who are fed formula have a less diverse range of bacteria compared with babies who are breastfed.
Breast milk is very complex and affects a baby’s immunity.
One of the benefits of breastfeeding is it has an impact on your baby’s gut bacteria, which affect immune development. The result is a reduced chance of your baby developing allergies.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that, compared with formula feeding, breastfeeding for at least 4 months helps protect high-risk children against allergies and eczema in the first 2 years of life.
#3. Protection against SIDS
Another of the benefits of breastfeeding is that it helps protect your baby against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
The NHMRC indicates not breastfeeding can increase the risk of SIDS by 56%.
Red Nose Australia supports breastfeeding as a protective measure against SIDS.
Extensive scientific studies over a number of years have consistently found the benefits of breastfeeding include a significant reduction in the risk of SIDS.
The ways in which formula feeding increases the risk of SIDS are explained here.
#4. Reduced morbidity and mortality in premature babies
Another of the benefits of breastfeeding is particularly important for premature babies.
Colostrum is the ‘first milk’ which is available from your breasts as soon as your baby is born.
Colostrum is extremely important for premature babies. It protects them against a number of potentially fatal infections and diseases.
Necrotising Enterocolitis (NEC) is a condition, seen mainly in premature babies, where parts of the gut undergo tissue death.
NEC is a leading cause of death in premature babies.
The NHMRC indicates babies who are fed formula are much more likely to get NEC than babies who are fed breast milk.
The ways in which breast milk are important to help prevent NEC are discussed here.
#5. Breastfeeding promotes healthy weight
Obesity in childhood often leads to obesity in adulthood. In adults, obesity causes many serious conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has found breastfeeding reduces the risk of childhood obesity by 25%.
It’s not just the components of breast milk, but also the way in which breastfed babies feed that reduces the likelihood of obesity.
Breastfed babies have a lower risk of obesity because they’re able to regulate their milk intake. They stop when they’re full, and eat when they’re hungry.
Recent research has found protein levels in baby formulas might be too high, which could contribute to the link between obesity and the use of formula.
Obviously, the development of obesity is not purely based on how a baby is fed.
Breastfeeding is one of many factors that influence a person’s weight.
Other factors include: genetics; food preferences; food availability; physical activity; and sedentary behaviour.
Benefits of extended breastfeeding
Breast milk doesn’t only benefit babies during the time they are breastfeeding.
Research shows breastfeeding helps protect your baby from infection well into childhood.
In fact, many of the health benefits of breastfeeding will last a lifetime.
Some of these health outcomes are dose dependent. That means the more breast milk babies receive, the more benefits they’ll reap in return.
It’s important to remember breastfeeding is not ‘all or nothing’. Any amount of breast milk you can provide to your child will help the short and long term health outcomes.
Here is a timeline that displays the benefits of breastfeeding, for even a short amount of time.
If you breastfeed for:
- 1 DAY: Your baby receives his first ‘immunisation’ from your colostrum. Colostrum has a laxative effect that helps your baby effectively pass meconium.
- 1 WEEK: Your baby has received a full dose of colostrum. It has lined the gut, to bind the cells of the intestine together. This is important in protecting your baby from harmful bacteria that can cause illness.
- 1 MONTH: Providing breast milk through this critical stage has continued to mature your baby’s immune system. Newborns who aren’t breastfed are much more likely to become sick or hospitalised in the first month of life.
- 2 MONTHS: Your baby’s risk of SIDS has halved.
- 3 MONTHS: Your baby has a reduced risk of developing asthma.
- 6 MONTHS: You’ve reduced your baby’s risk of infection for the first year of life.
- 9 MONTHS: Your baby has a lower risk of developing certain childhood cancers.
- 1 YEAR: Your baby is less likely to become overweight and now has a lower risk of heart disease in adulthood.
- 2 YEARS AND BEYOND: Breast milk continues to provide 43% of your baby’s daily protein requirement, as well as 60% of vitamin C, 75% of vitamin A, 76% of folate, and 94% of vitamin B12 requirements.
Benefits of breastfeeding after 6 months
There has been recent research into the importance of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life (from conception until the second birthday).
Dr. Leon Mitoulas, head of Breastfeeding Research at Medala explains:
“Scientists have discovered the right nutrition, and other factors, have the most profound impact on growth and long-term health during this time.
“Evidence unequivocally demonstrates that breastfeeding is uniquely beneficial during that crucial 1,000 day window…Breastfeeding can be considered a food, a medicine and a signal all at the same time.
“And these trifold benefits certainly continue beyond two years”.
WHO recommends babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life.
Breastfeeding should be continued, with the addition of complementary family foods, for 2 years, or for as long as mother and baby are happy to continue.
In some countries, this is called extended breastfeeding and provides many benefits, as noted above.
5 benefits of breastfeeding for mothers
The benefits of breastfeeding are not just important for babies. There are also many wonderful benefits for mothers.
#1. Breastfeeding helps you recover after birth
When you breastfeed your baby, oxytocin is released from your brain.
The release of this hormone causes your uterus to contact and shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size.
#2. Breastfeeding is a natural contraception and delays the return of your period
Prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production, prevents ovulation and delays the return of your period.
If you’re breastfeeding day and night, it can be several months (or even years) before your period returns.
The Lactational Amenorrhea Method (LAM) of birth control prevents you from falling pregnant while breastfeeding.
LAM is up to 99.5% effective if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, your baby is under 6 months of age, and your period hasn’t yet returned.
#3. Breastfeeding helps you return to your pre-pregnancy weight
Your body specifically stores fat during pregnancy to help fuel your milk production and feed your baby. Breastfeeding alone burns 1200-2000 kilojoules per day.
#4. Breastfeeding makes you feel good
Ever wondered why oxytocin is called the feel-good hormone?
Not only does it help your uterus shrink back to size, but oxytocin promotes feelings of positivity, love and connection.
It’s a perfect cocktail for bonding with your baby.
#5. Health benefits of breastfeeding
Breastfeeding for 1 year or longer can reduce your risk of breast cancer by 28% and your risk of ovarian cancer by 24%.
And, if you breastfeed your baby girl, you reduce her risk of breast cancer by up to 30%.
Benefits of breastfeeding vs formula
Did you know breastfeeding helps your baby’s brain grow?
Not only is breastfeeding vital in developing a strong immune system and preventing illness throughout your child’s lifetime, it’s also important for the optimal development of brain structure and function.
Research has shown that breastfeeding can boost a baby’s brain growth and enhance development in key areas of the brain.
Some studies have shown that breastfeeding can even lead to a 4 or 5 point increase in IQ.
We should remember that intelligence comes in many forms. Social and emotional intelligence are also important.
There are many ways a mother who bottle feeds can help her baby’s brain development.
For example, during feed times she can hold her baby close to her with as much skin-to-skin contact as possible. She can also alternate the arm she uses to holds her baby with each feed, so her baby’s alternate visual fields are stimulated.
The ways in which not being breastfed can affect development are discussed here.
Is breast really best?
Read five surprising facts about the ‘breast is best’ message here.
Scientific research into infant feeding points to the importance of breastfeeding for various health outcomes. This is why breastfeeding is promoted, as it should be.
For some individual families, however, formula feeding might be the best option.
It’s important for health professionals to meet mothers where they are, to provide them with unconditional positive regard and empathy, and to help them make fully informed decisions.
Lactation consultants – especially an IBCLC (the gold standard training for lactation) – are trained and experienced in breastfeeding issues.
Their role is not to force you to keep breastfeeding if another option is better; they will support you all the way.
At the first sign of trouble, speak to a Lactation Consultant or a breastfeeding support organisation like the Australian Breastfeeding Association.
Remember, breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Every drop of breast milk has wonderful benefits, for you and for your baby.