My mother always told me breastfeeding your baby is best. She knew how important breastfeeding is for a baby’s growth and development. Now, as a physician, I understand the scientific evidence of this very true advice.
Breastfeeding is best for both mothers and their babies. Breastfeeding is something special only a mother can do for her baby. Breastfeeding helps mothers and their babies build a close and loving bond and contributes to their emotional development.
Why is breastfeeding important? For babies, breastfeeding is how most babies are meant to be fed, human milk for our human baby. Babies digest breast milk easier because the proteins in breast milk are meant for the baby.
Breast milk helps the baby fight disease. The cells, hormones and antibodies in breast milk protect babies from illness. Breastfed babies have fewer illnesses, such as ear infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, lower respiratory infections, asthma, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. And when illness does occur in breastfed babies, the effects are milder. This immune protection is unique for each baby and their mother. Some research shows that breastfeeding can also reduce the risk of Type 1 diabetes, childhood leukemia and atopic dermatitis. Breastfeeding has also been shown to lower the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding. Once both mother and baby settle into a routine, breastfeeding is easier and time saving for mothers. She will not have to sterilize nipples and bottles, she will not need to buy, measure and mix formula, and no need to warm up a bottle in the middle of the night. Breastfeeding can also save the family money – no need to purchase feeding supplies or formula. In addition, because breastfed babies are sick less often, there can be savings in healthcare costs.
A mother’s health also benefits when she breastfeeds, and this has a cumulative advantage. The longer she breastfeeds or the more babies she breastfeeds, the greater the benefits. Breastfeeding lowers a mother’s risk of Type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and postpartum depression. Many studies also report greater weight loss for breastfeeding mothers than for those who don’t breastfeed.
Society also benefits from mother’s breastfeeding their babies. Recent research shows that if 90 percent of families breastfed exclusively for six months, nearly 1,000 deaths among infants could be prevented. The United States would also save $13 billion per year, mostly in medical costs, since these are lower for fully breastfed babies than for never-breastfed babies. Breastfeeding contributes to a more productive workforce because mothers miss less work to care for sick babies. Breastfeeding is also “green” for our environment, producing little to no trash from bottles, nipples and formula cans.
Breastfeeding during an emergency can be lifesaving, important in areas like ours that are at risk for severe storms and hurricanes. Breastfeeding protects babies from the risks of a contaminated water supply. Breastfeeding can help protect against respiratory illness and diarrhea, which can be fatal in populations displaced by a disaster. Breast milk is readily available and the right temperature without needing other supplies to maintain it fresh and preserved during a disaster where electricity is unavailable.
In their most recent policy, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reaffirms its recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced. Breastfeeding should continue for one year or longer as mutually desired by a mother and her infant.
If you have any questions about breastfeeding, speak to your child’s pediatrician.
Marta Galarza, M.D. is pediatric neonatal-perinatal expert at the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.