Breastfeeding is a topic often under discussion, with people having varying opinions and attitudes on the subject. Every aspiring parent must at one point think about how they will approach this vital stage of their child’s development, making whether or not to breastfeed a question commonly pondered by young parents.
Although circumstances may force some parents or caregivers to substitute breast milk with other nutrition sources such as infant formula, it is advisable that children be breastfed for at least their first six months.
The importance of the breastfeeding process to both infant and mother goes beyond mere nutritional benefits. The availability of equipment such as breast pumps, meanwhile, makes it possible for the child to benefit from breast milk without having to be breastfed.
Below you'll find five science-based advantages that breastfed children have over their bottle-fed counterparts.
1. An Ideal Source of Nutrition for Babies
According to medical experts, the recommended length of time is six months of exclusive breastfeeding, after which breastfeeding should continue for at least one year with the gradual introduction of other foods.
Breast milk contains the necessary nutrients required for the development of the infant especially in the first month, with their composition changing as per the changing needs of the baby.
In the first days after birth, the breast milk is produced with lots of colostrum; a thick and yellowish fluid high in proteins and other beneficial compounds which helps in the development of the infant’s rather immature digestive tract.
After the digestive system is developed, the breast now starts to produce milk with lower colostrum in larger amounts for the development and growth of the baby.
2. Breast Milk Contains Important Antibodies
In addition to vital nutrients, breast milk also equips the baby with important antibodies that help in boosting their immunity.
Colostrum – the first milk containing high protein, other nutrients and low sugar – is a source of large quantities of Immunoglobulin A (IgA) and other important antibodies.
After the mother is exposed to pathogens like bacteria and viruses, antibodies are produced which are then secreted in breast milk and passed on to the infant.
The IgA produced forms a protective layer around the throat, digestive system and nose of the baby, shielding them from any pathogens that could cause illnesses.
While baby formula may contain some of the nutrients required by the developing infant, it does not contain antibodies. For this reason, breastfed babies are less vulnerable to health issues such as diabetes, cancer, pneumonia and other infections.
3. Breastfeeding Reduces the Risk of Disease
Especially true of exclusive breastfeeding – where only breast milk is given to the baby – there is a long list of health benefits experienced by breastfed babies.
Below are some diseases and illnesses whose likelihood of occurrence is highly reduced by breastfeeding according to PubMed Central:
• Respiratory tract infections: A baby breastfed for more than four months has a reduced risk of being hospitalised due to these infections by up to 72%.
• Middle ear infections: More than three months of breastfeeding exclusively reduces the risk of these infections by 50%, whereas breastfeeding together with other foods reduces it by 23%.
• Gut infections: The risk of gut infections is reduced by up to 64%, with these reductions evident for up to two months after the baby is weaned.
• Colds and infections: There is a lower risk – up to 63% reduction – of babies exclusively breastfed for six months getting colds and throat or ear infections.
• Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS): In the first month after breastfeeding, there is a 50% reduced chance of the baby suffering from SIDS, while for the first year the risk is reduced by 36%.
On top of the reduced risk of the aforementioned diseases, breast milk also limits their severity.
4. Breastfeeding Helps with Weight Maintenance
A baby that is breastfed will gain weight in a healthy manner, reducing the likelihood of childhood obesity. According to studies, babies raised on formula have a 15-30% higher chance of childhood obesity than their breastfed counterparts.
The duration of breastfeeding is also an important factor, with the likelihood of childhood obesity reducing by 4% for each month the baby feeds on breast milk.
The healthy weight gain could be explained in terms of the beneficial gut bacteria – breastfed babies have a higher number, improving their fat storage. Breastfeeding also increases the amount of leptin, an important hormone for the regulation of fat storage and appetite in the system.
Babies who have been breastfed have a greater ability to regulate their intake of foods. They are better adapted to limiting their eating only to the satisfaction of hunger, a healthy eating pattern which reduces their risk of being overweight.
5. Breastfeeding Makes Children Smarter
The brains of breastfed babies develop differently from those of formula-fed infants. This is explained in terms of the intimacy, eye contact and physical touch associated with the process.
Studies also indicate that breastfed babies have higher intelligence scores and a lower likelihood of exhibiting behavioural and developmental problems.
These effects are especially evident in preterm babies who have a predisposition to developmental issues.
We hope we have demonstrated that there are numerous reasons why you should breastfeed your baby, if you have a chance. The effects are not limited to the infant either, as mothers who breastfeed experience a higher rate of weight loss and reduced stress levels, among other benefits.
Mothers or caregivers unable to breastfeed should not worry, however, since they could use breast pumps to give the baby access to much-needed breast milk.
The current official UK advice states that women should take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily from before pregnancy up to 12 weeks, and 10mcg of vitamin D daily throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. While folic acid helps reduce the risks of birth defects such as spina bifida, vitamin D improves bone and muscle health in mother and baby.
Author bio: Marie Burke is an employee of O’Flynn Medical, one of Ireland’s biggest healthcare equipment providers. They provide healthcare advice and services to both the commercial and private sector.
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Breastfeeding increases the amount of leptin, an important hormone for the regulation of fat storage and appetite.