How Good is Breastfeeding, Really?

Human milk contains carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and trace elements. So does infant formula. But the bioavailability (the amount of a nutrient that the body can actually absorb) of the nutrients in each fluid differs markedly. For example, human babies can absorb 67% of the calcium in human milk compared to only 25% of the calcium in cow's milk (the foundation of most infant formulas). Similarly, a human infant can absorb up to 50% of the iron in human milk, but only 10% of the iron in cow's milk and just 4% of the iron in iron-fortified formulas. Breastfed babies are rarely iron deficient because of the high lactose and vitamin C levels in human milk that facilitate iron absorption. The concentration of the ingredients also differs. Cow's milk has more phosphorus than human milk. The excess phosphorous leads to decreased absorption and increased excretion of calcium by the formula fed baby.resulting in higher rates of neonatal hypocalcemia (abnormally low levels of calcium) and tetany (e.g., muscle cramps and spasms, marked jitteryness or even convulsive seizures).

There are ingredients in breastmilk that cannot be duplicated in a factory because breastmilk is a living biological fluid; it contains, for example, hormones, active enzymes, growth factors, immunoglobulins, anti-inflammatory components, cytokines (involved in immune function) and other compounds with unique structures. These special ingredients allow breastmilk to stimulate and support the maturation of the nursling's immune system, as well as the growth and maturation of other organ systems.

Human milk is designed to meet the particular needs of human babies. And a particular mother's milk is designed to meet the needs of her baby. For example, when a baby is exposed to viruses and bacteria, he passes them on to his mother through breastfeeding. In turn, the mother's body produces the exact antibodies needed to help her baby's immature immune system fight those specific viruses and bacteria. The amount and type of nutrients, growth factors and immunological components of breastmilk continually change in response to the dynamic needs of the nursling so that the contents of each mother's milk varies during a feeding, in the course of a day, and throughout the duration of breastfeeding.

Benefits for the Child


• Helps bond mother and child
• Confers passive immunity
• Is protective against measles, chicken pox and other communicable diseases
• Permits normal growth and neurological development
• Protects against hypothermia
• Provides partial protection against necrotizing enterocolitis
• Provides significant protection against bacteremia and meningitis
• Provides protection against neonatal sepsis
• Permits proper tooth and jaw development
• Permits proper visual development
• Is safer for premature babies and low birth weight babies

Compared to breastfed babies, artificially fed babies have a higher incidence of:

• Illness, hospitalization and death
• Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
• Gastrointestinal illnesses and diseases (incl. diarrhea, celiac disease and ulcerative colitis)
• Juvenile diabetes
• Respiratory diseases (including asthma and pneumonia)
• Otitis media (ear infections)
• Allergies
• Obesity
• Heart disease
• Lower scores on intelligence tests
• Childhood leukemia and lymphoma

Benefits for the Mother


• Bonds mother and child
• Provides the mother with a natural hormone-induced contentment
• Encourages efficient uterine contractions after childbirth
• Allows mothers to lose pregnancy weight and size faster
• Is convenient (breastmilk is always warm, clean and available)
• Is cost-effective and saves money
• Contributes to natural family planning
• Contributes to household food security
• Fosters confidence and promotes self-esteem
• Reduces the incidence of urinary tract infections
• Is protective against cancer (breast, uterine, endometrial, ovarian and cervical)
• Lowers the incidence of chronic hepatitis
• Reduces the risk of osteoporosis
• Reduces the requirements of insulin for lactating diabetic mothers

Benefits for the Community


• Results in less environmental waste and pollution
• Frees up health resources
• Saves money for hospitals and health clinics

Adapted from: Baumslag, N. and Michels, D., Milk, Money & Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding. Bergin & Garvey, Westport, CT, 1995.

Reprinted with permission from Breastfeeding at a Glance, By Dia L. Michels and Cynthia Good Mojab, M.S.with Naomi Bromberg Bar-Yam, Ph.D. Platypus Media, 2001, ISBN: 1-930775-05-9.

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