How Breastfeeding Benefits Add Up

by Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC

How long should you breastfeed your baby? Only you and your baby will know for sure. Even if you breastfeed for just a few days, your baby will receive invaluable protection from infection. The health effects of breastfeeding accrue over time, so the longer you breastfeed, the better for your baby. Breastfeeding offers you benefits, too. The following information may help you decide:

  • If your baby nurses for a few days, he will receive colostrum, the first milk. Called "nature's vaccine for the newborn," colostrum has a high concentration of antibodies, some of which babies cannot get any other way. Through these antibodies, each mother provides her baby with protection from illnesses she has had as well as illnesses she is exposed to in their environment for as long as she is breastfeeding. Although formulas are continuously being modified to be "most like mother's milk," they will always fall short, because human milk is a living fluid and it is these living properties that enhance the functioning of a baby's immune system. Colostrum is also easier to digest than the proteins in formula and is designed to meet baby's nutritional needs.

    You will also benefit from these early breastfeeding days. Breastfeeding helps a mother's body recover more quickly from childbirth by releasing hormones that contract the uterus and prevent excess bleeding. Breastfeeding is also a wonderful way to bring mother and baby closer while they're getting to know each other.

  • If your baby nurses for four to six weeks, your milk will ease your baby through the most critical part of infancy. As a mother's milk changes from colostrum to a thinner, more mature and plentiful milk, it continues to contain protective antibodies. That is why breastfed newborns are less likely to become sick when an illness is being passed among family members and have fewer digestive and respiratory problems. Breastfed babies are rarely sick or hospitalized and studies have found that pneumonia and meningitis, for example, are at least four times less common among North American breastfeeding babies under six-months than among their formula-feeding counterparts. Breastfed babies are also less likely to suffer from bronchitis and wheezing and less likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

    Breastfeeding guarantees lots of holding and touching. The "mothering hormone," prolactin, is produced every time you nurse, relaxing you and helping you and your baby form a special bond. One study showed that at one month, breastfeeding mothers were less anxious and felt closer to their babies.

    Breastfeeding saves money. Powdered, liquid concentrate, and ready-to-feed formulas vary in price, and depending on how much of each is used, breastfeeding for one month may save between $75 and $180, not counting bottles, artificial nipples, and other feeding paraphernalia. Special formulas for allergic babies cost at least two to three time more than regular formula.

  • If your baby nurses for three to four months, he will be much less likely to develop ear infections. A recent study found that babies exclusively breastfed for at least four months develop half the ear infections of babies on formula.

    Breastfeeding makes it easier for mothers to shed the extra pounds put on during pregnancy, and naturally mobilizes fat stores, even fat accumulated before pregnancy. In one study, breastfeeding mothers lost more weight when their babies were three to six months old than formula feeding mothers consuming fewer calories.

    You will find that breastfeeding simplifies life with a baby, no matter what his age. Time isn't diverted to the preparation of formula, and you can leave home without bringing bottles. Human milk does not stain, is not constipating, and a breastfed baby's bowel movements have less odor, making diaper changes more pleasant and baby sweeter smelling. Nighttime feedings are also easier. If your baby is kept close at night, you may not even have to get out of bed to feed him. Just tuck him in next to you and both of you can drift back to sleep while he nurses.

    By four months, the family of the exclusively breastfed baby will save formula costs of between $300 and $720.

  • If your baby nurses for six months, she will be much less likely to suffer from allergies, especially if she has been exclusively breastfed. Also, components in human milk protect the digestive tract from foreign proteins, which could cause allergic reactions. At about six months, a baby's system begins producing special antibodies that take over this function, reducing the possibility of food allergies. When there is a history of allergies in the family, it is recommended to wait until this time to introduce solids, so food allergies are less likely to develop. Human milk supplies all the nutrients a baby needs for the first six months of her life.

    Breastfeeding for at least six months also provides other long-term health benefits. Research has found that immunizations are more effective in breastfeeding babies and that nursing at least six months reduces the risk of childhood cancers.

    Breastfeeding provides reliable protection against pregnancy during the first six months when there is no menstrual bleeding, even among women who give occasional supplements. However, when a baby is breastfed without supplements or solids and the mother has no menstrual bleeding, breastfeeding offers 98% protection against pregnancy during the first six months.

    At six months, the family of the exclusively breastfed baby will save formula costs of between $450 and $1080.

  • If your baby nurses for nine months, you will see him through the fastest and most important development of his life on the most valuable of foods, your milk. A baby's brain grows most rapidly from birth to nine months, and preliminary research has found that properties in human milk may be critical for babies to reach their full intellectual potential. This study followed children up to the age of eight and found that children who were breastfed had IQs on average eight points higher than those who received only formula. The more human milk received, the greater the difference. Because the milk of each species varies according to its need and it is our intelligence that sets us apart from other mammals, this is not so surprising. Rabbit milk is high in protein because baby rabbits need to run quickly. Seal milk is high in fat because baby seals need a thick layer of fat to protect them from the cold. Cow's milk is high in calcium because baby cows need strong bones to stand and walk. So it makes perfect sense that something in human milk promotes brain growth and intelligence.

    Although the health benefits of breastfeeding continue as baby grows, the emotional benefits of nursing for comfort and security become more evident around this age.

    A practical advantage to you is that many babies this age can go directly to the cup without ever needing bottles.

  • If your baby nurses for a year, you will have saved enough money to buy a major appliance. Your baby is now ready to try a whole range of new foods. This year of nursing has given your child a stronger immune system and many health benefits that will last a lifetime. Studies have shown that breastfeeding offers protection from Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis in adulthood, as well as Hodgkin's disease and certain chronic liver diseases. Individuals who were breastfed were also less likely to develop insulin-dependent diabetes. Breastfeeding also encourages proper facial development and makes it less likely that speech therapy and orthodontia will be needed later on. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing for at least a year to ensure the best possible nutrition and health for your baby.
  • If your baby nurses for longer than a year, you will continue to provide the highest quality nutrition and superb protection against illness at a time when infections are common. One study found that the immunological components of human milk that protect a baby from illness during the first year continue to be present in the same concentrations throughout the second year of breastfeeding. Former Surgeon General Antonia Novello has said, "It is the lucky baby...who continues to nurse until he's two."

    You will enjoy health benefits from extended nursing, too. Studies have found that the longer a woman breastfeeds over her lifetime, the lower her risk of breast cancer.

    Mothers who breastfeed past a year often talk of the emotional benefits gained: the comfort and security it gives their little ones, the ease it brings to naptimes and bedtimes, and the opportunities it offers to relax and tune in to each other during a hectic day.

    At this point, you and your baby have formed a solid bond, a healthy starting point from which your baby can experiment with his growing independence. Together you can work on the weaning process, progressing gradually at a pace that he can handle.

  • If your baby nurses until she outgrows the need, you can feel confident that you have met your baby's physical and emotional needs in the healthiest and most natural way possible. As long as you nurse, your milk continues to provide antibodies and other protective substances that make illnesses milder and easier to handle. In fact, families of nursing toddlers often find that their medical bills are lower for years to come. The World Health Organization encourages breastfeeding through toddlerhood.<.

    Children who were nursed long-term tend to be secure. Nursing can help you and your child through the tears, tantrums, and tumbles of toddlerhood. Don't worry that your child will nurse forever. All children eventually wean no matter what you do, and there are more nursing toddlers around than you might guess.

Whether you breastfeed for days, weeks, months, or years, both you and your baby will enjoy many benefits. Some mothers hesitate to begin breastfeeding if they know they will not be nursing for very long. But even one nursing at the breast is of value to you and your baby.

Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, is an accredited La Leche League leader and international board-certified lactation consultant. She is the mom of three boys that each nursed more than a year. Nancy is known internationally for her expertise on breastfeeding. Her books, articles, and pamphlets are used by doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, lay breastfeeding counselors and public health workersDoctors, nurses, lactation consultants, lay breastfeeding counselors and public health workers use her books, articles, and pamphlets. The Breastfeeding Answer Book (1997), which she co-authored with Julie Stock, is a comprehensive research-based counseling guide that is also used to train lactation educators. You can see more of her articles at her website, The Art of Breastfeeding.

Article republished by Pregnancy.org, LLC with permission from author. Originally published in 11/93, Baby Talk magazine.