What are the advantages of breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding is a natural function but not necessarily a natural instinct for all mothers. Choosing how and what to feed your baby is a personal decision that requires careful consideration.

Most experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recommend breastfeeding during your baby's first year. And many experts recommend breastfeeding your baby for any length of time, regardless of how short, to benefit both mother and baby.

Find out if breast milk or formula milk is best for you and your baby.

What are the benefits of feeding your baby breast milk?

According to the Mayo Clinic, breast milk is the best source of nutrition for the first six months of life. Breast milk contains appropriate amounts of carbohydrate, protein, and fat, and provides digestive enzymes, minerals, vitamins, and hormones that infants require.

Breast milk also contains antibodies from the mother that can help the baby resist infections. A mother's breast milk is specifically tailored to her baby. Breast milk may help lower the frequency of infections in the baby, as the mother's body responds to pathogens (virus and bacteria) and makes secretory IgA, creating protection for her baby.

And the benefits of breastfeeding may go beyond a baby's breastfeeding stage when it comes to illness prevention and protection. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, breastfeeding can reduce both the mother's and the baby's risk of developing certain cancers.

Scientists don't know exactly how breast milk reduces the risk of cancer, but they think antibodies in breast milk may give a baby's immune system a boost.

Breast-fed babies may have less frequent health issues, including:

  • ear infections
  • stomach or intestinal infections
  • digestive problems (including constipation or diarrhea)
  • skin diseases (infantile eczema)
  • allergy problems
  • hospitalizations in the first year of life

In addition, breast-fed babies may have less risk of becoming overweight or developing high blood pressure, diabetes, iron-deficiency anemia, and tooth decay.

Breastfeeding your baby offers other benefits, including:

  • no bottle cleaning
  • no formula preparation
  • lower cost
  • easier weight loss
  • less post-partum bleeding
  • enhancement of the unique bond between mother and child
  • reduced risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer
  • reduced risk of diabetes later in life

What are some concerns of breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding your baby may not be the best option for you, if you have certain health conditions. It is extremely important to understand that any medications you take may enter the breast milk and affect your baby.

Always check with your doctor first about which are safe. Do not stop any prescribed medication without discussing with your health care provider first.

Other tips to consider while breastfeeding include:

  • maintaining adequate nutrition
  • drinking plenty of fluids, especially water, every day
  • getting plenty of rest
  • taking good care of your nipples and breasts
  • keep the environment calm and relaxed
  • look to loved ones for support
  • don't be afraid to ask for help

Other factors to consider: formula-feeding

Certain circumstances can change your plans to breastfeed. How and what your baby eats may ultimately depend on the baby's physical condition and your health after birth.

Some babies are unable to breast feed for certain reasons, including:

  • premature birth
  • small size
  • weak physical condition
  • difficulty sucking
  • birth defects of the mouth (cleft lip or cleft palate)

While breastfeeding is considered the best nutritional option for babies by major medical organizations, it is not necessarily the best option for every mother.

Some mothers are advised not to breastfeed due to health conditions, including:

  • active, untreated tuberculosis
  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection or AIDS
  • active herpes lesions on the breast
  • severe malnutrition
  • hepatitis infection
  • use of street drugs, or uncontrolled alcohol use

Commercially prepared formulas for bottle-feeding are considered adequate sources of nutrition. These formulas even contain some vitamins and nutrients that breast-fed babies must get from supplements. The AAP actually recommends that iron-fortified formula be used for all bottle-fed infants from birth to one year.

Commercial formulas are manufactured under sterile conditions. They attempt to match a mother's milk using a complex combination of proteins, sugars, fats, and vitamins. If you do decide to feed formula to your baby, it's important that you use a commercially prepared formula instead of trying to create your own.

See your baby's pediatrician if you have a breast infection, breast abscess, breast cancer or other cancer, or inadequate milk supply.

Sources: Moore ML. Current Research Continues to Support Breastfeeding Benefits. The Journal of Perinatal Education. 2001.

Preparation and Use of Infant Formula. Compendium of Postpartum Care. Association of Women's Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses. 2006.

Hanson LA, Söderström T. Human milk: Defense against infection. National Institutes of Health. 1981.