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.