Breastfeeding Numbers Soar with New Evidence of Health Benefits
The best milk for babies is their mother’s milk. It is the safest source of nutrition for her child and ranks high on long-term benefits for moms as well. It is well known that breastfeeding is associated with a multitude of health benefits for both the child and mother.1 Breast milk is the ideal food for infants because it contains a naturally complex combination of nutritional and immunologic factors that cannot be replicated by formula.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released excellent news for the health of our nation’s children. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of new mothers who chose to nurse their babies climbed significantly. In 2000, 35 percent of new moms nursed for six months, and 16 percent nursed for at least one year; in 2010 those numbers rose to 49 percent and 27 percent, respectively:2
11 Benefits of Nursing
- Development of baby’s immune system
The immune system is not yet fully active upon birth, and children are especially vulnerable to respiratory and gastrointestinal tract infections during the first two years of life. Breast milk has a “programming” effect on the immune system
- Provides antibodies that protect the baby from infection.
It also supplies antimicrobial compounds, and a variety of immune-supporting substances that promote the maturation of immune function.
- Breast milk also contains healthy bacteria that may help to populate the baby’s gut flora3
The immune benefits of breast milk translate into a reduced risk of allergies, asthma, eczema, diarrhea, respiratory conditions and ear infections in early life.
- Reduced risk of child becoming overweight in childhood and adolescence
Breast-fed infants grow more slowly and are leaner during the first two years of life compared to formula-fed infants, likely due to the lower protein content of breast milk compared to formula.4 This early slow growth may exert a long-duration protective effect, since the risk of overweight in childhood and adolescence is reduced by 22 percent in breast-fed infants.5
- Reduced risk of childhood leukemia2
- Reduced risk of type 1 diabetes in childhood.
- Enhanced cognitive development and school achievement
This is likely due to the DHA content of breast milk. The first year of life is a crucial time for brain development, and DHA-rich breast milk provides the building blocks for the baby’s brain.5
- Reduced risk of disease in adulthood
Adults who were breast-fed as infants have a reduced risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and premenopausal breast cancer.2,5-8
Benefits of Breastfeeding for the Mother
- Reduced risk of breast cancer
This is possibly due to the reduced exposure to ovarian hormones. A large-meta-analysis found that the risk of breast cancer decreases by 4.3 percent for every year of breastfeeding.9
- More favorable lipid, glucose and insulin levels4
Longer duration of breastfeeding is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. In the Nurses’ Health Study, there was a 14 to 15 percent decrease in risk for each year of breastfeeding.10
- Reduced weight retention after giving birth4
How Long Should I Breastfeed?
I agree with the recommendations of the World Health Organization, which are for exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, with continued supplemental breastfeeding to two years. Two years is likely the appropriate age because it is the time at which the spaces between the cells lining the baby’s gastrointestinal tract close. Before that time, those spaces allow the mother’s protective antibodies from breast milk to be absorbed. The new data from the CDC, although the trend is promising, suggest that breast feeding in the U.S. is not adequate — three-quarters of infants are no longer being breast-fed by their first birthday.
Proper nutrition is vitally important to health during all stages of life, and especially during the rapid cellular growth that occurs during fetal development and infancy. Early nutrition is a significant determinant of long-term health, and it starts with a woman’s nutritional status even before she becomes pregnant, followed by good nutrition throughout pregnancy and nursing, and then setting a good nutritional example for children. Breastfeeding is most protective of a child’s health when the mother is in good health.