The Benefits of Breastfeeding: A Comprehensive Overview

    Updated 24 April 2020 |
    Published 12 February 2019
    Fact Checked
    Reviewed by Dr. Anna Klepchukova, Intensive care medicine specialist, chief medical officer, Flo Health Inc., UK
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    For mothers, the time immediately after childbirth is often a blur of relief, joy and many new decisions. An important choice at this point is whether or not to breastfeed your newborn. Read on to find out about the benefits of breastfeeding.

    Advantages of breastfeeding for moms

    From speeding up postpartum recovery to easing anxiety and more, breastfeeding can be helpful to new mothers in a number of ways. Let’s take a closer look at each of these advantages of breastfeeding:

    Helps maintain your health

    Feeding infants with breast milk has proven health benefits for the mother, both short-term and long-term. Studies have shown that nursing lowers the chance for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some reproductive cancers. Under certain conditions, breastfeeding can also be used as a contraceptive method. 

    Improves your mood

    Studies on nursing mothers versus formula feeding mothers have linked breastfeeding with fewer signs of stress, anxiety, and negative moods. This is because the process of breastfeeding releases hormones called oxytocin and prolactin, which have a calming, soothing effect.

    Gets you back into shape

    According to recent studies, breastfeeding helps your body return to its pre-pregnancy shape much faster. Oxytocin, the breastfeeding hormone, speeds up the shrinkage of your uterus back to its previous size and also makes it easier to shed pregnancy weight.

    Saves time and money

    Another major advantage of breastfeeding is the amount of time and money it saves in the long run. We’re not just talking about avoiding high formula prices and trips to the store. By strengthening your health and your baby’s health, breastfeeding means fewer doctor and hospital visits or other healthcare-related expenses.

    Breastfeeding benefits for babies

    Numerous studies have noted the direct benefits of breastfeeding for infants. By supplying critical nutrients, boosting their immune systems, and much more, it can lead to happier, healthier babies. Here’s another detailed list of breastfeeding advantages:

    Offers balanced nutrition to your baby

    Mother’s milk is proven to have almost all the necessary nutrients (except for vitamin D) in proper proportions. However, exclusively breastfed infants will require vitamin D supplements. During the first few days after birth, the mother’s breasts produce a thick, yellowish liquid called colostrum. This high-protein, low-sugar fluid contains IgA, and compounds which develop the baby’s digestive system.

    Makes babies healthier and smarter

    Breastfed babies show better health and brain development in infancy, as well as later in life. In a 2013 study by Brown University, MRI scans of breastfed infants indicated better brain development versus formula or combination-fed infants. Breastfeeding supplies antibodies that boost immunity and lower their chances for respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Breast milk also makes children less likely to develop asthma, allergies, diabetes mellitus, and obesity.

    Leads to healthy weight gain 

    Studies have linked nursing with a lower occurrence of obesity in children and adults. Infants fed on breast milk have higher levels of leptin (a hormone that lets you know when you’re full) and beneficial gut bacteria, which regulate fat storage and appetite. 

    Breastfeeding vs. formula: pros and cons

    Now that we know the various benefits of breastfeeding, how does it compare to using formula? Next, let’s weigh the advantages and disadvantages of breastfeeding and formula feeding:

    Advantages of breastfeeding:

    • Supplies critical nutrients to infants in proper proportions
    • Boosts short and long-term immunity and health for both mother and child
    • Speeds up postpartum recovery and weight loss for mother
    • Stimulates brain development and lowers child’s chances for chronic diseases
    • Provides skin-to-skin contact that encourages mother-child bonding and builds emotional security in the child
    • No preparation time
    • Breast milk is easy for the baby to digest 

    Disadvantages of breastfeeding:

    • Early breastfeeding may be uncomfortable for mother
    • Exclusively breastfed infants require vitamin D supplements
    • Mother must be available for feeding when needed, or pump if not present
    • Certain medications may not be allowed 
    • Only the mother can feed the baby

    Advantages of formula feeding:

    • Anyone can feed the baby, even if mother is absent
    • In case breastfeeding is initially difficult for mother, formula can be used in the meantime

    Disadvantages of formula feeding:

    • Formula can be difficult for the baby to digest and absorb
    • Nutritional content and proportions are not predetermined (depends on preparation)
    • Does not supply crucial antibodies to boost child’s immunity
    • Does not lower their chances of developing certain diseases or SIDS
    • Does not stimulate brain development
    • May increase chances of childhood and adult obesity, as well as infections
    • Can cost $50 to $200 per month depending upon quality and brand

    Breastfeeding myths

    There are many myths about breastfeeding that are often passed on as well-meaning ‘advice’ from friends and family. Let’s review and debunk these myths, one by one:

    • Breastfeeding is easy: Contrary to what you may have heard, breastfeeding the right way takes practice, and it’s normal for new mothers to find it a bit difficult at first. Consider using resources that help you adjust to postpartum life, like information about correct latching techniques. Getting used to breastfeeding takes time, patience, and support. 
    • Pain and soreness are inevitable: Although initial discomfort is common when breastfeeding, pain is usually a sign that the baby is not latching onto the breast properly. By trying different positions, you will be able to find what works for you and your child. 
    • Small breasts can’t produce enough milk: Initial breast size doesn’t affect the amount of milk produced, and breast tissue will grow in size during pregnancy. In fact, milk ducts are actually found in the functional tissue, not in the fatty tissue that determines breast size. 
    • You should eat bland food when nursing: After digestion, any food elements that might upset your baby’s stomach are already broken down and will not end up in your breast milk. Foods like dairy and soy may need to be avoided, but a wait-and-see policy is always best when nursing, as is keeping a food log. 
    • Breastfeeding leads to overdependent children: On the contrary, nursing creates a feeling of emotional bonding and security that can help infants grow into confident, independent adults. 

    Breastfeeding benefits both you and your child in several ways. From better physical, emotional, and cognitive development to stronger immune systems, these positive effects can be felt well into adulthood. However, it’s perfectly normal to find breastfeeding challenging at first. If you face any issues while nursing, including breast-related infections, consult your doctor to choose the feeding method that’s best for you and your child.

    History of updates

    Current version (24 April 2020)

    Reviewed by Dr. Anna Klepchukova, Intensive care medicine specialist, chief medical officer, Flo Health Inc., UK

    Published (12 February 2019)

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