The benefits of breastfeeding are plentiful for both you and your baby. For the past nine months your body has been preparing to produce a very special blend of nutrients - specifically designed for your newborn. Human breast milk is a unique combination of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and other vital nutrients, custom-made for your baby to provide superior nutrition and to promote optimal body growth and brain development. The antibodies contained in colostrum, the first milk, have important immune-boosting qualities which may be considered your child's first immunization. Breast milk is sometimes referred to as white blood, because it contains living white blood cells that protect your newborn by destroying the harmful bacteria that their immature immune system is not yet able to fight off. The natural process of breastfeeding takes over where the placenta leaves off in nourishing and protecting your newborn outside the womb.
The unique biochemical balance of the many components of human breast milk cannot possibly be duplicated artificially. The proteins contained in breast milk are more quickly and easily digested and more efficiently absorbed than the proteins in cow's milk formulas. There are also certain proteins that are exclusive to breast milk, which perform unique functions, including enhancing brain and nervous system development, transporting iron from your milk into baby's blood, and fighting off disease. Human breast milk is high in necessary fats, which provide vital nutrients to your newborn's growing body. It is rich in long-chain fatty acids, including DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an essential omega-3 fatty acid, which is
necessary for newborns' brain and eye development-- and is presently not found in infant formula manufatured in the United States. Breast milk also contains a significant amount of cholesterol, an important lipoprotein for growing infants. Studies suggest that the higher cholesterol levels of breast fed infants in early life may condition the "cholesterol-disposal system" to work more efficiently in eliminating the surplus in adulthood. To aid in the digestion of fat, breast milk contains an enzyme called lipase, which helps to ensure that more fat is absorbed by your baby's growing body and less is eliminated in their stools.
Formulas cannot contain enzymes, since they are destroyed by the heating process. The
predominant carbohydrate found in breast milk is lactose (milk sugar), which is composed of glucose and galactose. This natural sugar duo provides an important source of energy, is essential for brain cell functions, enhances central nervous system development, and improves the absorption of certain minerals, including calcium. Studies have shown that among mammals, the lactose content of the mother's milk is directly related to brain development.-- the higher the lactose content, the larger the brain of that species. Thus, the lactose content of human milk is among the highest of all mammals. Lactose also promotes the growth of benefitial intestinal bacteria known as Lactobacillus bifidus, which create an acidic environment in your baby's intestinal tract, preventing the growth of certain harmful bacteria which can cause infant diarrhea. In addition, the many vital nutrients contained in breastmilk, including iron, are much better absorbed by your baby's body than those in infant formulas.
There are slight variations in the composition (most notably the fat content) of your breast milk from day to day depending on the stage of lactation, your diet, and the time of day, but it's nutritonal base remains fairly constant. Breast milk has an amazing ability to provide your baby with just what they need at any appropriate time. This couldn't be more evident than in research that has shown that the breast milk of mothers who deliver preterm babies is higher in calories and important nutrients, including protein, fats and sodium, to meet their babies' special needs.
Studies show that breastfed babies are at a reduced risk for many medical conditions. They have a lower rate of chronic immune system disorders, such as juvenile diabetes, Crohn's disease (a bowel disorder), and childhood cancers, especially lymphoma. Breastfeeding provides some protection against respiratory illnesses (such as ear infections), gastrointestinal infections (such as diarrhea), and urinary tract infections in infancy and early childhood. Breastfeeding has also been linked with a lower incidence of food allergies, asthma, eczema, hayfever, and other allergic disorders, as well as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
When a mother has a common illness (such as a cold or the flu), it is benefitial to continue to breastfeed. When a nursing mother is exposed to such an illness her body produces specific antibodies to combat it. These same antibodies are passed through her breast milk to help protect her baby from the same illness. If the baby does get sick, it is almost always a milder case.
Breastfeeding has also been related to enhancement of cognitive development. Researchers attribute this intellectual advantage to the effects of hormones, growth factors, and special fatty acids -- present only in breast milk. Another advantage of breastfeeding is that the active process of sucking at the breast strengthens your baby's jaw muscles, encouraging good tooth, jaw and facial development.
There is growing evidence that the benefits of breastfeeding are cumulative. As the length of time a mother nurses her baby increases, the risk of certain diseases for both the mother and baby decreases. The longer a mother breasfeeds over her lifetime, the less risk she has of premenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis. The longer babies are breastfed, the lower their risk of diseases later in life, including breast cancer, osteoporosis, ulcerative colitis, and obesity. Because of this growing evidence, in 1997 the American Academy of Pediatrics released a revised policy statement regarding breastfeeding.
They now recomment that for maximum benefits, babies should be breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months of life. At 6 months, supplemental solid foods may be gradually introduced while babies continue to breastfeed for a minimum of one year and as long thereafter as mutally desired.
Breastfeeding also helps mothers with postpartum recovery. When a baby sucks at the breast, the mother's body releases a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone helps the uterus shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size more quickly and constricts the uterine blood vessels, minimizing blood loss. Oxytocin is also associated with feelings of warmth and love. Another wonderful by-product of breastfeeding is a hormone called prolactin. Prolactin is the milk-producing hormone and it also acts as a natural tranquilizer, filling the mother with a sense of well-being while she nurses.
Breastfeeding offers emotional as well as nutritional benefits. Nursing is a special way of nurturing and bonding with your baby and is a great source of comfort for your newborn. The mother and baby's warm, loving circle of skin-to-skin contact helps reduce the stress babies experience as they leave the security of the womb to enter their new world.
Breastfeeding has many practical aspects and it is said to be the "perfect food." It is economical, saves time and energy, and is instantly available. It is always fresh, easy to digest, and consistently at the right temperature-- which makes outings with your baby especially easy. It is also the most environmentally friendly form of infant feeding, as nursing produces no packaging waste.
Overall your breastfed baby will be healthier-- and a healthier baby is a happy baby! As a result, you will have fewer medical expenses, fewer missed days of work, and later on, fewer nights of interrupted sleep because of an ill infant. By nursing your baby you are laying a strong foundation for all future development-- during infancy and throughout life-- and you are decreasing your own chances of developing certain medical conditions.