Breast milk provides optimal nutrition for babies.
It has the right amount of nutrients, is easily digested and readily available.
While some women are unable to breastfeed, others simply choose not to.
Yet studies show breastfeeding has major health benefits, for both the mother and her baby.
Here are 11 science-based benefits of breastfeeding.
Benefits 1–5 are for babies, but 6–11 are for mothers.
Most health authorities recommend exclusive breastfeeding for at least 6 months.
Continued breastfeeding is then recommended for at least one year, as different foods are introduced into the baby's diet (3).
Breast milk contains everything the baby needs for the first six months of life, in all the right proportions. Its composition even changes according to the baby's changing needs, especially during the first month of life (4).
Colostrum is the ideal first milk and helps the newborn's immature digestive tract develop. After the first few days, the breasts start producing larger amounts of milk as the baby's stomach grows.
To compensate for this deficiency, vitamin D drops are usually recommended from the age of 2–4 weeks (8).
Bottom Line: Breast milk contains everything your baby needs for the first six months of life, with the possible exception of vitamin D. The first milk is thick, rich in protein and loaded with beneficial compounds.
Breast milk is loaded with antibodies that help your baby fight off viruses and bacteria.
This particularly applies to colostrum, the first milk.
Colostrum provides high amounts of immunoglobulin A (IgA), as well as several other antibodies (9).
When the mother is exposed to viruses or bacteria, she starts producing antibodies.
These antibodies are then secreted into the breast milk and passed to the baby during feeding (10).
For this reason, breastfeeding mothers with the flu may actually provide their babies with antibodies that help them fight the pathogen that is causing the sickness.
Nonetheless, if you are ill, you should always practice strict hygiene. Wash your hands often and try to avoid infecting your baby.
Formula doesn't provide antibody protection for babies. Numerous studies show that babies who are not breastfed are more vulnerable to health issues like pneumonia, diarrhea and infection (14, 15, 16).
Bottom Line: Breast milk is loaded with antibodies, especially immunoglobin A, which can help prevent or fight illness in your baby.
Breastfeeding has an impressive list of health benefits. This is particularly true of exclusive breastfeeding, meaning that the infant receives only breast milk.
It may reduce your baby's risk of many illnesses and diseases, including:
- Middle ear infections: 3 or more months of exclusive breastfeeding may reduce the risk by 50%, while any breastfeeding may reduce it by 23% (17, 18).
- Respiratory tract infections: Exclusive breastfeeding for more than 4 months reduces the risk of hospitalization for these infections by up to 72% (18, 19).
- Colds and infections: Babies exclusively breastfed for 6 months may have up to a 63% lower risk of getting serious colds and ear or throat infections (17).
- Gut infections: Breastfeeding is linked with a 64% reduction in gut infections, seen for up to 2 months after breastfeeding stops (18, 19, 20).
- Intestinal tissue damage: Feeding preterm babies breast milk is linked with around a 60% reduction in the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis (18, 21).
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS): Breastfeeding is linked to a 50% reduced risk after 1 month, and a 36% reduced risk in the first year (18, 22, 23).
- Allergic diseases: Exclusive breastfeeding for at least 3–4 months is linked with a 27–42% reduced risk of asthma, atopic dermatitis and eczema (18, 24).
- Celiac disease: Babies who are breastfed at the time of first gluten exposure have a 52% lower risk of developing celiac disease (25).
- Inflammatory bowel disease: Babies who are breastfed may be roughly 30% less likely to develop childhood inflammatory bowel disease (26, 27).
- Diabetes: Breastfeeding for at least 3 months is linked to a reduced risk of type 1 diabetes (up to 30%) and type 2 diabetes (up to 40%) (3, 28, 29).
- Childhood leukemia: Breastfeeding for 6 months or longer is linked with a 15–20% reduction in the risk of childhood leukemia (19, 30, 31, 32).
In addition to reducing the risk of many infections, breastfeeding has also been shown to significantly reduce their severity (33).
Furthermore, the protective effects of breastfeeding seem to last throughout childhood and even adulthood.
Bottom Line: Breastfeeding may reduce your baby's risk of infections and many diseases, including allergy, celiac disease and diabetes.
Breastfeeding promotes healthy weight gain and helps prevent childhood obesity.
The duration is also important, as each month of breastfeeding reduces your child's risk of future obesity by 4% (19).
This may be due to the development of different gut bacteria. Breastfed babies have higher amounts of beneficial gut bacteria, which may affect fat storage (38).
Breastfed babies also self-regulate their milk intake. They're better at eating only until they've satisfied their hunger, which helps them develop healthy eating patterns (41).
Bottom Line: Breastfed babies have lower obesity rates than formula-fed babies. They also have more leptin and more beneficial gut bacteria.
Some studies suggest there may be a difference in brain development between breastfed and formula-fed babies (3).
This difference may be due to the physical intimacy, touch and eye contact associated with breastfeeding.
However, the most pronounced effects are seen in preterm babies, who have a higher risk of developmental issues.
Bottom Line: Breastfeeding may affect your baby's brain development and reduce the risk of future behavior and learning problems.
While some women seem to gain weight during breastfeeding, others seem to effortlessly lose weight.
For the first 3 months after delivery, breastfeeding mothers may lose less weight than women who don't breastfeed, and they may even gain weight (55).
Bottom Line: Breastfeeding may make weight loss harder for the first 3 months after delivery. However, it may actually help with weight loss after the first 3 months.
During pregnancy, your uterus grows immensely, expanding from the size of a pear to filling almost the entire space of your abdomen.
After delivery, your uterus goes through a process called involution, which helps it return to its previous size. Oxytocin, a hormone that increases throughout pregnancy, helps drive this process.
Oxytocin also increases during breastfeeding. It encourages uterine contractions and reduces bleeding, helping the uterus return to its previous size.
Bottom Line: Breastfeeding increases oxytocin production, a hormone that causes contractions in the uterus. It reduces blood loss after delivery and helps the uterus return to its previous smaller size.
Postpartum depression is a type of depression that can develop shortly after childbirth. It affects up to 15% of mothers (68).
Although the evidence is a bit mixed, it's known that breastfeeding causes hormonal changes that encourage maternal caregiving and bonding (73).
One of the most pronounced changes is the increased amount of oxytocin produced during birth and breastfeeding (74).
These effects may also partly explain why breastfeeding mothers have a lower rate of maternal neglect, compared to those who do not breastfeed.
One study found that the rate of maternal child abuse and neglect was almost three times higher for mothers who did not breastfeed, compared to those who did (77).
On that note, keep in mind that these are only statistical associations. Not breastfeeding does not mean that you will neglect your baby in any way.
Bottom Line: Breastfeeding mothers are less likely to develop postpartum depression. They have increased amounts of oxytocin in their system, which encourages caregiving, relaxation and bonding between mother and child.
Breastfeeding seems to provide the mother with long-term protection against cancer and several diseases.
In fact, women who breastfeed for more than 12 months during their lifetime have a 28% lower risk of both breast and ovarian cancer. Each year of breastfeeding is associated with a 4.3% decrease in breast cancer risk (79, 80).
Women who breastfeed for 1–2 years over their lifetime have a 10–50% lower risk of high blood pressure, arthritis, high blood fats, heart disease and type 2 diabetes (3).
Bottom Line: Breastfeeding for more than one year is linked to a 28% lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer. It has also been linked to a reduced risk of several other diseases.
Continued breastfeeding also pauses ovulation and menstruation.
The suspension of menstrual cycles may actually be nature's way of ensuring there is some time between pregnancies.
However, note that this may not be a completely effective method of birth control.
You may consider this change as an extra benefit. While you're enjoying precious time with your newborn, you won't have to worry about "that time of the month."
Bottom Line: Regular breastfeeding pauses ovulation and menstruation. Some have used this as birth control, but it may not be completely effective.
To top the list, breastfeeding is completely free and requires very little effort.
By choosing to breastfeed, you won't have to:
- Spend money on formula.
- Calculate how much your baby needs to drink daily.
- Spend time cleaning and sterilizing bottles.
- Mix and warm up bottles in the middle of the night (or day).
- Figure out ways to warm up bottles while on the go.
Breast milk is always at the right temperature and ready to drink.
Bottom Line: By breastfeeding, you don't have to worry about buying or mixing formula, warming up bottles or calculating your baby's daily needs.
If you are unable to breastfeed, then feeding your baby with formula is still completely fine. It will provide your baby with all the nutrients he or she needs.
However, breast milk also contains antibodies and other elements that protect your baby from illness and chronic disease.
Additionally, mothers who breastfeed experience their own benefits, such as convenience and reduced stress.
As an added bonus, breastfeeding gives you a valid reason to sit down, put your feet up and relax while you bond with your precious newborn.