The Numerous Benefits of Breastfeeding
Researchers have documented the many advantages that breastfeeding offers to both mother and baby. First, and most important, breastmilk is the ideal food for an infant. Each species of mammal produces milk especially suited to the needs of its young. Human milk is biochemically suited to brain development, while animal milk promotes muscular development. Cow’s milk was meant for baby cows. Most formulas are made from cow’s milk. Formula companies often claim that their products are “most like mother’s milk,” but no formula can equal it. Many components of breastmilk—enzymes, living cells, hormones, and even vitamins—have been discovered over the years, but still other valuable constituents probably remain undetected.
Although cow’s milk has a higher protein content, human milk has protein that is superior in quality and geared to the specific needs of the human infant. While a baby completely utilizes the protein in breastmilk, he excretes about half of the protein in cow’s milk. Breastmilk promotes the growth of friendly bacteria in the baby’s intestines. Additionally, the intestinal tract of a breastfed baby is acidic, which is not conducive to the growth of harmful bacteria. The intestines of a formula-fed infant are alkaline, an environment in which many harmful bacteria thrive.
The amounts of fat in breastmilk and formula are similar, but breastmilk fat is more readily absorbed. To imitate mother’s milk, formula companies replace the butterfat in cow’s milk with mono- and polyunsaturated vegetable oils. However, this substitution also reduces the amount of cholesterol, which is necessary for several vital functions. Cholesterol aids in the absorption of nutrients and the development of the covering that surrounds and protects an infant’s nerves. Breastmilk contains six times the amount of cholesterol that is present in formula. Some researchers believe that these high levels of cholesterol in infancy may protect babies from high levels later in life.
Although low in content, the iron in human milk is in a form that is absorbed much more readily than the iron that is added to formula or given as a supplement. Formula-fed infants are at greater risk for iron deficiency anemia because only 4 percent of the iron in cow’s milk is absorbed, as compared to 49 percent in mother’s milk. Cow’s milk can also cause minute bleeding in the intestines, which can further increase anemia. Full-term breastfed infants should not be supplemented with iron because it interferes with the iron binding ability of a special protein, lactoferrin. This protein binds the iron in the infant’s intestinal tract and prevents harmful bacteria from multiplying, since the bacteria need iron to grow.
- Is the perfect food for human infants.
- Produces healthier babies.
- Is economical.
- Is always available and at the correct temperature.
- Promotes brain development and higher IQs.
- Protects against allergies.
- Offers emotional and physical benefits to the mother.
- Is easy to digest.
- Promotes good facial development.
- Produces bowel movements that do not stink!
Human milk contains very small amounts of fat-soluble vitamin D, the “sunshine” vitamin that helps calcium to be metabolized and prevents rickets. A water-soluble vitamin D has also been isolated in breastmilk. Rickets is rarely observed in breastfed children if the mother is well nourished. A study in 1989 found that babies totally breastfed for the first 6 months showed no evidence of vitamin D deficiency. A few minutes of sunshine a day on the baby’s cheeks should ensure plenty of vitamin D. If the family lives in an area that does not receive much sunlight, it may be advisable for either the nursing mother or the child to take supplements of this vitamin.
During your baby’s first weeks of life, your milk will undergo changes that will make it particularly suited for your baby’s individual needs each day. It will begin as colostrum, a sticky yellowish fluid that contains immunity factors and has a high protein content. Your colostrum will also help rid your baby’s body of mucus at birth and will cleanse his intestinal tract. The colostrum will gradually change to a thin white or bluish white liquid containing the exact combination of water, fat, protein, sugar, minerals, and vitamins that your baby needs, while continuing to provide immunities.
Breastmilk is raw and fresh. Formula is processed and must be stored and then reheated, all of which destroy important nutrients. Breastmilk is unprocessed and is fed to a baby when it is at its maximum nutritional value.
Breastmilk Has Unique Qualities
Breastmilk contains some amazing properties that cannot be duplicated or added to formula. These properties are perfectly devised to keep babies healthy and to protect them from disease. Because infants are born with immature immune systems, they are not equipped to fight off infection-causing bacteria and viruses. Breastmilk, however, provides the missing protective factors to combat foreign organisms. It is the only way your baby can receive this crucial protection.
During the first days of breastfeeding, a nursing baby receives protection through the high level of antibodies present in his mother’s colostrum. Any immunities that the mother acquired over her lifetime are passed to her infant. Later, if the mother becomes ill, she builds up new antibodies, which are then also passed on to the baby. This is why breastfed babies rarely get colds, or may have just a mild case, even if everyone else in the family is sneezing and sniffling. In addition, breastfed infants have higher protective antibody responses to vaccinations than formula-fed infants. This protection is so great that some doctors have referred to breastmilk as “nature’s vaccine.”
Another protective factor comes from the mother’s milk glands, which produce an immunity-inducing protein called secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA). This substance gives the baby protection against foreign molecules that might produce allergic reactions in him. It also gives him antibodies against the organisms that cause infant diarrhea and respiratory illness. Secretory IgA does not work by killing organisms, but by binding with them and preventing them from attaching themselves to the lining of the baby’s intestines or respiratory tract, where they could multiply and cause disease.
Even further protection results from living cells called leukocytes that are contained in breastmilk. These white cells attack foreign bacteria and destroy harmful disease-causing organisms. These cells are at their highest level right after birth and continue to be produced in sufficient quantities for up to 5 months. While these cells can survive freezing, they cannot survive heat. This is why stored breastmilk should never be heated to high temperatures or microwaved prior to use. Mother’s milk also contains an antibacterial substance called lysozyme, which dissolves bacterial cell walls to destroy them. While this enzyme can be manufactured, it cannot be added to formula, since the sterilization process destroys it.
Another benefit of colostrum is that it provides a laxative effect to help rid the infant’s intestinal tract of meconium. Meconium, the dark stool present in the bowel at birth, contains high levels of bilirubin. If the meconium is not excreted soon after birth, the bilirubin is reabsorbed into the bloodstream and can contribute to higher levels of jaundice in the newborn.
Breastmilk also helps protect babies against allergies. The intestines of a newborn are permeable and allow large molecules to pass through to the bloodstream. Allergies are the result of reactions to foreign molecules found in formula or foods. Colostrum contains epidermal growth factor, which coats the intestines and prevents the passage of large proteins into the bloodstream. Since breastmilk is not a foreign protein, an infant will not become allergic to it. Occasionally, if the mother drinks cow’s milk, her infant may exhibit a reaction to the cow’s milk proteins. Removing the cow’s milk and all other dairy products from the mother’s diet usually eliminates the fussiness in the baby. The longer an allergy-prone infant is breastfed, the better his chances are of reducing or eliminating the effects of allergies.
Breastmilk Is Better for Preterm Babies
Breastmilk is particularly important for the preterm infant’s sensitive digestive system. Preterm babies have temporary deficiencies of certain enzymes and frequently suffer malabsorption problems. Breastmilk is perfectly suited to their special needs. Necrotizing enterocolitis, a severe and sometimes fatal bowel condition of preterm infants, is rarely found in babies that are fed breastmilk.
Because of the preterm baby’s need to gain weight rapidly, his caloric intake must be higher than that of a term baby. Research has found that the milk from the mothers of preterm babies is higher in protein and fat than the breastmilk produced for full-term infants to meet this higher caloric demand.
A recent study comparing preterm infants fed breastmilk with preterm infants fed formula through a feeding tube showed that, 8 years later, the breastfed group had significantly higher IQs, even after adjusting for maternal education and social class.
If your birth is preterm and your baby is too weak to suck, it is extremely important that you pump your breasts to give your baby the colostrum and mature milk that your body is producing for him. For the best results, use an electric breast pump to build and maintain your milk supply. This will take extra effort on your part, but it is well worth the benefits to your baby. Many hospitals rent electric pumps for this purpose.
While the baby is receiving milk via a feeding tube, it is recommended that he be allowed to suck to improve weight gain and to improve stomach emptying. Since a pacifier may impede his transition to the breast, authorities encourage mothers to nurse the baby while he is receiving the tube feeding.
Studies have shown that, contrary to popular medical belief, nursing from the breast is less stressful and easier for the preterm infant than sucking from a bottle. Once the baby is able to suck, request that he be breastfed. Until you are able to feed the baby, cup feeding can be substituted for bottlefeeding. This takes lots of time and patience, but it is worth the effort.
Breastmilk Results In Better Health
Breastmilk contains antibodies that help prevent infection. Breastfed babies get fewer and milder colds than do bottlefed babies, and they have less eczema, ear infections, and diaper rash. In addition, a breastfed baby is less likely to be affected by allergies, either as a baby or later in life. No baby has ever been found to be allergic to his mother’s milk. Occasionally, certain foods that you have eaten may cause a digestive upset, but eliminating those foods from your diet will usually solve the problem.
If you have a family history of allergies, it is especially important that you breastfeed your baby and delay introducing him to solid foods. Breastfeeding is the best way to prevent severe allergies in your child. You should continue giving your baby nothing but breastmilk for at least 6 months. As your baby gets older, his susceptibility to allergic reactions will diminish.
One of the most common causes of allergy in babies is cow’s milk. Many parents switch their babies from one formula to another, hoping to find one— usually a soybean-based formula—that is agreeable. In the meantime, both baby and parents suffer.
On rare occasions, a baby is so allergic that he cannot tolerate any formula. In this case, breastmilk is crucial to the infant’s survival. If his mother has not been nursing him, she must find another source of human milk until she can relactate and build up her own milk supply. Relactation is possible even for women who have not lactated for several months or who never nursed their babies. Indeed, some women have successfully nursed adopted babies, since the baby’s sucking is what stimulates milk production.
Breastmilk Results In Better Digestion
A breastfed newborn’s digestion is better than that of a bottlefed infant because breastmilk fosters the growth of “friendly” bacteria in the intestines. The presence of these bacteria results in fewer bowel upsets and less diarrhea. A baby’s system utilizes breastmilk more completely than it does formula. Babies fed entirely on breastmilk rarely become constipated, whereas formula-fed babies occasionally do become constipated, resulting in painfully hard bowel movements.
Breastfed infants also receive a variety of flavors depending on the mother’s diet and exercise. This may work to your advantage when you introduce solids to your baby, since he may try new foods more readily. Babies seem to like the taste of the milk, and may want to nurse more often, if their mothers have eaten garlic. Conversely, infants sometimes refuse to nurse after their mothers have exercised strenuously, possibly because exercise causes an increase in lactic acid, which makes milk taste sour. In this case, you will need to pump your breasts or feed your baby before you exercise. You may want to reduce the intensity of your exercise program.
Breastfeeding Produces Better Teeth
Breastfeeding promotes good facial development in babies. Babies suck differently when nursing from the breast than when sucking on a rubber nipple. Nursing results in superior facial muscle and jaw development. Bottlefeeding is considered to be a major cause of malocclusions and other facial and dental problems in children.
Breastfeeding has also been associated with generally healthier teeth. In a study conducted at Oregon State University, children who were breastfed for 3 months or longer had 45 percent to 59 percent fewer cavities than their bottle-fed counterparts in the same communities.
Breastmilk Benefits the Skin
Breastfeeding encourages the close physical contact that is necessary for proper emotional development. Your new baby needs plenty of love and cuddling, and this is easily accomplished by nursing. A mother cannot “prop a breast” the way she can prop a bottle.
When you hold your baby, you will be struck by how soft his skin is. This softness will be enhanced by breastmilk. Some doctors even claim that they can tell the difference between bottlefed babies and breastfed babies by the feel of their skin.
Breastmilk Has Long-Term Benefits
Evidence exists that some of the benefits of breastfeeding remain with the infant throughout his lifetime. Breastfed babies have markedly lower incidences of ear infections, upper and lower respiratory tract infections, and gastrointestinal diseases, including diarrhea. Formula-fed infants have a higher risk of developing pneumonia, influenza, botulism, urinary tract infections, bacterial infections, and meningitis. They are also more likely to require hospitalization. Allergies occur at greater rates and are more severe in formula- fed infants.
Studies have shown that breastfed babies scored higher on mental development tests. Breastmilk contains very long chain fatty acids, which are necessary for proper brain growth. These fatty acids are not present in formula.
A British study showed that ulcerative colitis in adults was 100 percent more common in patients who were not breastfed past 2 weeks of age than in those who were.
In 1991, a New Zealand study linked formula feeding, the prone sleeping position, and maternal smoking to an increased risk of SIDS. Another recent investigation linked formula feeding with the development of insulin-dependent diabetes in children. Lymphomas are observed six times more often in children who were not breastfed for at least 6 months.
Breastfeeding Is Better in Emergency Situations
During a major disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake, electricity and water are often cut off, and breastfeeding may be crucial to your baby’s survival. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida and Louisiana, and Hurricane Iniki ravaged Hawaii. In some areas, power was not restored for several months, and the water supplies remained contaminated for weeks. Babies who were not breastfed were at serious risk during that time. In 1993, a young couple and their baby were stranded in a Nevada blizzard for 8 days. The parents survived by eating snow. Because the baby was breastfed, he remained healthy throughout the ordeal and survived in good condition. In situations such as these, nursing mothers can relax in the confidence that their babies will continue to receive the same plentiful and uncontaminated food supply.
Breastmilk Is Safer Than Formula
Formula may not always be safe. In 1978 and 1979, two soybean-based formulas, Neo-mull-soy and Cho-free, were found to contain insufficient amounts of an essential nutrient, chloride. At 8 and 9 years of age, children who had received these formulas as babies showed cognitive delays, language disorders, visual motor difficulties, fine motor difficulties, and attention deficit disorders.
In 1992, it was reported that formula-fed infants were exposed to overdoses of vitamin D, which is toxic at high levels. Seven of the ten samples that were tested contained over 200 percent of the amount of vitamin D that was listed on the label. Formula-fed infants may also be exposed to high levels of iodine (up to ten times the amount that is found in breastmilk), which may affect neonatal thyroid function.
The FDA maintains a list of nutrients that are required components of all formulas. This list is updated infrequently, even though a new method may be discovered to synthesize a particular nutrient that has been missing from formulas. In 1996, the FDA discussed adding docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, to its required list. DHA is considered to be a major component of breastmilk and is a building block of brain tissue, yet it has not been required in formulas. In 1996, the director of the FDA’s Office of Special Nutritionals, Elizabeth Yetley, stated that the FDA’s list of required nutrients “is old and out of date.”
Contamination is another danger associated with formulas. As recently as 1993, a batch of Soy-a-lac formula was recalled because of salmonella contamination.
The method of preparation can also influence the safety of formula. In poverty-stricken areas, stretching formula to save money or providing low-cost substitutes such as tea or soft drinks results in the infant not receiving sufficient nutrients. A language barrier or the mother’s inability to read may cause the infant to receive either too much or too little of the nutrients. Improper storage of prepared formula may result in bacterial contamination and illness. In areas where the water used for boiling contains lead, the infant is at increased risk for lead intoxication.
Additionally, using water from a contaminated water supply could have serious consequences. Unfortunately, it is not just in underdeveloped countries that this problem is encountered. Very recently, a number of American cities have found dangerous bacteria present in their water supplies. Each time, the residents were told not to drink the water until the source of the problem was pinpointed and eliminated. The real danger in these situations is to the babies who are given formula made with contaminated water before the contamination is discovered. No water supply can ever be assumed to be as safe as mother’s milk!
Formula companies have changed their marketing strategies over the past few years. They now state that “breast is best” and provide breastfeeding discharge packs, publications, and videos to new mothers. While extolling the virtues of breastfeeding, these materials often imply that you will need a formula to supplement or to take over when you discontinue. In reality, if you continue to breastfeed your child throughout his first year of life, you will never need a formula. Every formula company says that its product is closest to mother’s milk. Researchers have found that over 90 percent of mothers purchase the brand of formula that was provided in the discharge pack from the hospital.
None of the formula manufacturers benefit economically when you choose to breastfeed. The only economic advantages are to you, because you do not have to spend any money to feed your baby. Unfortunately, no company is willing to advertise the many benefits of breastmilk the way formula companies advertise formula.
Breastfeeding Has Benefits for Mothers
Advantages also exist for you, the nursing mother. Because breastmilk is available immediately, you can ease your baby’s hunger without first having to warm a bottle. Breastfeeding is cheaper and easier than bottlefeeding because there is nothing to buy, measure, pour, heat, or sterilize. Your baby’s sucking is beneficial to you because it stimulates your uterus to contract and to return to its prepregnant size sooner. In addition, since you burn more calories while nursing, it will be easier for you to lose weight without dieting and to regain your shape sooner. The extra fat that was deposited during pregnancy will be utilized during the early months of lactation.
Some evidence shows that breastfeeding decreases your chances of developing certain cancers. Studies have shown that a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer is proportionately reduced by the length of time she breastfeeds. This means that the longer you nurse, the better protection you have. A decrease in cervical and ovarian cancer has also been linked to breastfeeding.
Traveling is easier with a breastfed baby because you will not have to pack any supplies or warm any bottles. Nursing mothers have found that taking their babies along is easily accomplished by just grabbing an extra diaper or two. Outings are more relaxed because you do not have to rush home for feedings or worry if the formula is becoming sour without refrigeration. If you wear a blouse or sweater that you can pull up from the waist, you will be able to discreetly nurse your baby almost anywhere. Practice nursing in front of a mirror to become comfortable.
The emotional advantages of breastfeeding include more intimate contact between you and your baby, and the feeling of satisfaction and sense of fulfillment that you experience while nursing. In addition, the hormone prolactin, which causes the secretion of milk, helps you to feel motherly. It also has a soothing and tranquilizing effect, and thus causes you to feel calm and relaxed each time your baby nurses. Breastfeeding may also help you to cope in stressful situations. A recent study found that the release of stress hormones was suppressed in lactating women.
Because you must sit or lie down to nurse, you are forced to get the rest that you need postpartum.
Nursing delays the return of the menstrual period because prolactin suppresses ovulation. Breastfeeding, therefore, is an aid to spacing children. However, you should use another method of contraception along with breastfeeding if you do not want another child right away because nursing is not 100-percent effective at birth control. The amount of breastfeeding necessary to suppress ovulation varies from woman to woman. In addition, you might ovulate prior to menstruating again and thus become pregnant without ever having a period. If your baby receives supplemental formula, begins eating solid foods, or regularly sleeps through the night, his less frequent nursings may cause a decrease in your production of prolactin.
Breastfeeding Has Benefits for Fathers
Your encouragement is crucial to your wife’s success at breastfeeding. If you understand the benefits of nursing, you will be able to respond to comments and suggestions from friends and relatives that might discourage her or sabotage her efforts to nurse. Breastfeeding will help your child to achieve his full potential mentally, physically, and emotionally. Support and encourage your wife in providing these benefits to him.
You will discover that advantages also exist for you, the father of a breastfed baby. For example, those middle-of-the-night feedings will not disrupt your sleep. Your wife will probably awaken as soon as the baby does, often before he even cries. (The two of them will seem to be on the same wavelength. You may often wonder which one of them wakes up first.) These nighttime feedings are easiest if the baby is simply tucked into bed with the two of you, allowing your wife to drift back to sleep while he nurses. In the early weeks, you can help out by getting up, changing the baby, and bringing him to his mother. Chances are, the closeness and body warmth will encourage him to fall asleep more quickly also. Caution: Do not bring your baby into bed with you if you sleep in a waterbed. He could suffocate in the soft mattress or against the frame if he rolled over.
Another benefit that you will certainly notice is that breastfed babies smell good. They do not have that sour milk smell that formula-fed babies often have, even when they spit up. Their stools do not have an offensive odor, so you will find that changing diapers is not as bad as you expected.
You will also appreciate the economic advantages of breastfeeding. Bottles, formula, and baby food cost money; breastmilk does not. The price of formula rose 150 percent from 1979 to 1990. Some couples have calculated that they saved enough in 6 months of breastfeeding to purchase a major appliance. You will also save money by having fewer doctor bills, since breastfed babies are healthier.
You should not feel left out or unimportant because you are unable to feed your baby. Feeding is just one part of his care. There are many other ways in which you can show your love—by bathing him, holding and cuddling him, rocking him, singing to him, taking him for walks in his stroller, and even changing his diapers. And you can have the satisfaction of knowing that, when it comes to milk, he is getting the “real thing.”