From the moment your baby enters the world in the delivery room that first latch, and attempt to breastfeed is almost immediate. This is what nature has designed for us to do to give our babies the best possible start in life.
But the benefits of breastfeeding go well beyond that immediate nutrition that feeds that rapid growth of your newborn.
In this article, we will take a deep dive into the short and long term effects of breastfeeding and have come up with 18 key areas that we will discuss in detail covering:
- The immediate benefits for your baby
- Long term benefits that they will carry into adulthood
- The immediate benefits for you
- Long term health benefits for you
- How everyone benefits from higher rates of breastfeeding
There is a lot of information here so click on the table of contents below to skip ahead.
Why is this Important?
The rate of exclusive breastfeeding among American Moms is very low, and it declines rapidly with each passing month after birth.
Breastfeeding is a challenging undertaking and it will basically take over your life early on. If this post can inspire even one Mom to tough it out for a little longer then we think that is worthwhile.
Rate of Exclusive Breastfeeding After Birth
Is Breastfeeding Essential?
It is important to recognize from the outset that breastfeeding at all is a personal choice. And in some cases just not possible or practical for a number of reasons.
Our intention in putting this list together is to educate those who want more information, not to shame anyone or devalue anyone’s choice not to breastfeed.
Check out the links below for some of the common problems you may encounter when starting to breastfeed. Some can be solved, some cannot. There are plenty of viable alternatives to keep your baby happy and healthy:
- Your baby bites you frequently
- Your supply is low and you are looking to increase production naturally
- The skin on your nipple wears out quickly
- Supplementing with formula
- You need to exclusively pump breast milk
Benefits of Breastfeeding Your Baby
As you can probably surmise, the nutrition part of breastfeeding is what makes it the best option for babies. In fact, your baby will need no other supplemental nutrition other than your breast milk for at least the first six months after birth.
But what exactly is in breast milk that makes is so good for your little one?
Whey and casein are the two main types of proteins found in breast milk, about 60% and 40% respectively. These proteins help to regulate digestion by promoting healthy bacteria growth while inhibiting bad bacteria and other organisms in the gastrointestinal tract.
Protein also helps protect against infections and illness caused by bacteria and viruses including E. coli and salmonella.
For the first couple of years after your baby is born, fats will be very important for their development; and breast milk is chock full of fats.
These are necessary for proper brain, retina, and nervous system development and for the absorption of certain vitamins. It is also their primary calorie source which helps with physical growth and feeling full.
Between what is already present in your breast milk and what you take in through your food and prenatal vitamins, your baby receives all the vitamins they need without the use of supplements.
However, it is very important that you continue on your prenatal vitamins and maintain a healthy diet so your baby doesn’t suffer from a vitamin deficiency.
Similar to proteins, carbohydrates – like the main one found in breast milk, lactose – help to regulate unhealthy bacteria in the stomach to improve vitamin absorption and fight disease.
The majority of babies who are breastfed are sick much less often than those on formula. They suffer far fewer cases of meningitis, ear and respiratory tract infections, gut problems, and urinary tract infections.
Why? Well, it is thanks to not only the proteins and lactose that regulate bacteria growth in the gut but also due to the presence of antibodies found in breast milk.
Breast milk contains all five forms of antibodies (immunoglobins): IgG, IgA, IgM, IgD, and IgE, though IgA is found in the highest abundance. These help to create and strengthen your baby’s immune system.
These antibodies are particularly effective against colds, particularly if you – the mother – is sick first.
Your body will start to produce antibodies that your child will receive through your breast milk, which will help them fight the cold quickly or even avoid it altogether.
2. Lower Instance of Disease
Because breastfed babies have strong immune systems, they are at a much lower risk for certain diseases that may affect a child with a weaker immune system.
It has been found that babies who are breastfed for more than 6 months are less likely to develop acute leukemia and lymphoma. They are also less likely to develop both type 1 and 2 diabetes.
In addition to disease prevention, breastfeeding can also be effective against allergy development, particularly in babies whose families have a history of allergies. Because formulas are usually dairy or soy based, early introduction of these substances can increase a child’s likelihood of developing allergies.
Breastfeeding on the other hand, because it is natural and not dairy or soy based, can provide protection against these allergies. The precise effectiveness that breastfeeding provides against allergies still remains largely unclear, but there is no denying that there seems to be a positive pattern.
3. Healthy Weight
Babies are supposed to gain weight; it is a normal sign of healthy development. However, there comes a point where babies can gain too much weight which can put them at risk for obesity later in life as well as diabetes.
Whether your baby is formula or breastfed can make a very big difference in their growth rate as well as weight gain.
With formula, it can be very easy to overfeed your baby. Combine that with the additional ingredients found in formula that assist with weight gain, your baby is at a higher risk for unnecessary weight gain.
Breastfeeding is a better way to regulate what and how much your child is eating while still ensuring that they are healthy. Breast milk is produced in just the right amount and contains the precise ingredients needed to help your child gain weight at a healthy rate.
4. Mental Agility
There is a popular belief that breastfeeding makes babies smarter, but is there really enough evidence behind that claim to back it up?
This subject tends to be one of great controversy, with some professionals claiming this as fact and others stating it’s simply a myth. However, a study conducted by the Journal of Korean Medical Science (JKMS) stumbled upon some interesting results.
According to this study – a follow-up to a prior 3 year that began in 2006 – nearly 700 children were tested at ages 12, 24, and 36 months. It was found that children who were breastfed for 9 months or more showed signs of improved cognitive development.
Even with these results, it is hard to say if breastfeeding actually makes children smarter. However, it does show that breastfeeding greatly impacts brain development and cognition in the early months and years of childhood.
5. Improved Sleep
It may be hard to believe that breastfeeding can improve a baby’s sleep patterns; after all, breast milk is digested quicker (which means more feedings during the night) and all babies wake frequently during the night.
However, breastfeeding directly from the source at bedtime can improve a baby’s quality of sleep based on the ingredients found in breast milk in the evening.
Because the mother is winding down for the night – her body is producing more melatonin and other chemicals that promote sleep – more nucleotides are produced which can help babies sleep better.
It is for this reason that mothers who pump should always label their storage bags with the time the milk is pumped. Saved milk pumped at night for nighttime feedings and milk pumped during the day for daytime feedings.
6. Lower Risk of SIDS
When it comes to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), there are so many risk factors that remain unknown. Sometimes, these cases of death are a complete mystery with no known reason as to how it happened.
At the same time, there have been factors that are known to reduce the risk of SIDS with little to no understanding as to why it helps. Breastfeeding is one of these factors.
Because most cases of SIDS occur within the first 3 months after birth, it is highly recommended that you breastfeed your baby to decrease their risk. In fact, a study showed that breastfeeding reduced the risk of SIDS by about 50%.
Perhaps it is because breastfeeding promotes healthy development – nervous and respiratory systems. Or it may be some other unknown reason. Whatever to link may be, it is worth breastfeeding your baby to reduce any risk of SIDS.
What the experts say:
Longer Term Benefits of Breast Milk for Children
7. Lower Risk of Health Conditions into Teen and Adult Years
Besides the immediate health benefits for babies, breastfeeding can provide long-term health benefits for teens and even adults.
Exclusively breastfeeding for at least 6 months can reduce your child’s risk for obesity and type 1 diabetes later in life. This is likely due to the fact that breast milk promotes healthy, gradual weight gain during infancy.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom
8. Postpartum Recovery
Your body goes through a lot during pregnancy both with hormonal/emotional changes and physical changes. Your uterus – which is normally about the size of a pear – grows to the size of a watermelon by the end of your pregnancy.
Obviously, what goes up must come down; in other words, your uterus will need time to return to its normal size before your recovery is complete. And in order to do so it will need some help.
One of the main hormones that is released during breastfeeding is oxytocin. This hormone helps your uterus to contract in order to return to its natural pre-pregnancy size and shape.
You may notice that you feel some slight cramping or pain during the first few days to weeks after giving birth. This is completely normal and actually signifies that your body is doing what it is supposed to do.
Now, your uterus will still shrink back to its normal size even without breastfeeding, but because of the hormone release associated with breastfeeding, your recovery may go a little faster. Which is always a bonus.
9. Hormonal Benefits
While you may still be struggling with hormonal imbalance after delivery, you will be able to start enjoying the benefits of certain hormonal releases associated with breastfeeding.
Another hormone released in a nursing mother is prolactin. This is the primary hormone responsible for the production of breast milk.
Production of this hormone begins during pregnancy in order to prepare your breasts for milk production, but it is kept in check by the placenta. Once the baby and the placenta are delivered, estrogen and progesterone levels decrease so prolactin can increase.
Prolactin has other benefits that go beyond milk production; it has a unique calming effect on a mother’s psyche and decreases a mother’s emotional response to adrenaline spikes.
Which in turn helps her to manage stress and anxiety better.
10. Delayed Menstruation
The release of prolactin can also cause a delay in the return of your menstrual cycle after birth.
You will still have several weeks of bleeding and fluid loss (called lochia), but your actual period could possibly be delayed for another several months as long as you are exclusively breastfeeding.
When your period returns will depend on the individual and certain factors regarding your biology and nursing frequency. Simply put, the more you breastfeed your baby, the more likely that your period will be delayed in its return.
Some mothers, between pregnancy and breastfeeding, may not see their period return for over a year. These mothers are usually exclusively breastfeeding until their baby is at least 6 months old.
Once the weaning process starts or if you start introducing bottles, you may have a light period for a couple of months in a row before it returns to its normal flow and frequency.
11. Birth Spacing
Delayed menstruation can also mean a delay in your ability to become pregnant again. While this may be a frustration for some, it can be a great relief for most mothers as they try to figure out this whole motherhood thing.
Now, breastfeeding is not a foolproof form of birth control; you can still become pregnant while you are nursing. But for most, breastfeeding can help you space your pregnancies and subsequent children out a bit.
If you want to try to use breastfeeding as a natural form of birth control – which again is not 100% foolproof – you will need all of the following factors to be true:
- Your periods have not returned
- Your baby is exclusively breastfed
- Your baby is less than 6 months old
If all of these apply to you, it is highly likely that your fertility will be delayed so you will not become pregnant again for a while. Once you start breastfeeding less regularly, your periods will eventually will return and so will your fertility.
12. Cost Savings
Nursing, rather than formula feeding, also has an added benefit of being able to save your family hundreds of dollars. After all, breast milk is free!
Breastmilk is produced naturally by our bodies and, except in rare cases, our bodies produce more as the baby eats and needs more.
Not only will you not have to purchase formula – which ranges from $16-$40 a can – with infants going through upwards of 10 cans a month. Bottles and nipples are also expensive.
This doesn’t even factor in the amount of money families can save in long term medical costs. Breastfed babies are at less risk for developing some of the most common illnesses, such as respiratory infections and stomach irritation.
13. Weight Loss
Breastfeeding can be the best way to kick start your weight loss after birth. Nursing will burn a lot of extra calories – as many as 500-700 per day – due to the fact that your body requires a lot of energy to create breast milk.
Now, in order for you to lose weight in a healthy way while breastfeeding, you need to go about it the right way.
You cannot skimp on your nutrition or calorie intake because you want to lose more weight. That is not healthy for you or your baby. Cutting back on your calories puts you at risk for a drop in milk production and possibly may even result in your milk production stopping altogether.
It is best to try and consume at least 1,800 calories per day to continue milk production while still promoting weight loss. Once your doctor clears you for normal activity, you can also add in a bit of moderate exercise.
14. Physical Health
In addition to the great health benefits breast milk provides for babies, breastfeeding can also be highly beneficial to the mother’s health. These benefits include cardiovascular health, lower BMI, and lower cancer risk.
Breastfeeding is also particularly beneficial to mother’s who suffered from gestational diabetes. These women have a much higher risk of developing diabetes later in life, but breastfeeding more than nine months can help to lower that risk.
It can also help conserve iron in the mother’s bloodstream. This greatly decreases a mother’s risk of developing an iron deficiency or anemia.
For whatever reason, there seem to be quite a few obstacles that keep the majority of women from breastfeeding. One of these things is their return to work.
Some employers aren’t as accommodating when it comes to pumping at work, and with the public breastfeeding stigma, women are often hesitant to make arrangements for pumping at work. They often find it easier to just wean their baby or start with formula in the first place.
However, if employers are informed and properly educated, there can be great benefits for them as well as working mothers when a woman decides to continue with breastfeeding and pumping.
Because breastfed babies are sick far less often, breastfeeding/pumping mothers call out of work must less often. This means more opportunities for advancement, higher employee retention, and healthcare savings.
What the experts say:
Longer Term Benefits of Nursing for Mom
16. Lower Risk of Health Conditions
As previously mentioned, nursing has also been proven to reduce a woman’s risk of long-term health conditions, including diabetes, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer.
In regards to cancer prevention, breastfeeding is known to reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. This is believed to be due to the physiological (tissue) and chemical (hormone) changes that happen while a woman is breastfeeding.
For every 12 months a woman breastfeeds, her risk of breast cancer drops by 4.3%; likewise, a woman who has never breastfed increases her risk of ovarian cancer by 1.5 times. In other words, the longer a woman breastfeeds, the more the risk for cancer development is reduced.
How Breastfeeding Benefits Everyone
One thing many don’t consider when deciding to feed their baby with formula is the huge environmental impact it has. And this impact is not a positive one.
Most of the materials that are used when bottle feeding are made of plastic. This includes liners, bottles, nipples, and sometimes even the formula containers themselves.
Unless parents are extremely environmentally conscious, most of this plastic will end up in landfills rather than recycling bins. Some may choose to use glass bottles, but that is just one small component out of many.
Breastfeeding drastically cuts down on waste when it comes to feeding your baby. Now, of course, mothers who are pumping still go through bottles, nipples, and liners, but for those that exclusively breastfeed directly from the source, there is no waste. Overall, breastfeeding is just much more environmentally friendly.
18. Health Care System
We’ve already covered the fact that breastfed babies are sick less often. But what effect does this have on the health care system?
It is believed that if most mothers (around 90%) would follow the recommendations set forth by medical professionals in regards to breastfeeding, the U.S. could save nearly $13 billion in healthcare every year.
This number is taking into account 10 common pediatric diseases for which breastfeeding is known to help prevent, including eczema, ear infections, pneumonia, asthma, type one diabetes, and SIDS.
Surprisingly, the number of breastfeeding mothers is very low. While the majority start out breastfeeding after birth, only 32% are still exclusively breastfeeding at 3 months and 12% at 6 months.
While no woman should be blamed for her decision not to breastfeed, there is something to be said for the additional benefits breastfeeding has to offer babies, mothers, and beyond.
Breastfeeding is a difficult thing to keep up, and it will basically rule your life throughout that first year. We hope that this information has given you some inspiration to power through those tough day and night feedings.
The benefits of breastfeeding are significant and if you choose to do so long term you can be sure that you are helping your baby, yourself and the world in just a small, but important, way.