Breastfeeding benefits go beyond providing a food source for a new bundle of joy; they can change how well a child can handle food. Researchers from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill took a closer look at how breast milk influences a baby’s diet throughout infancy and published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology.

"We found that babies who are fed only breast milk have microbial communities that seem more ready for the introduction of solid foods," the study’s lead author Dr. Andrea Azcarate-Peril, assistant professor in the department of cell biology and physiology, said in a press release. "The transition to solids is much more dramatic for the microbiomes of babies that are not exclusively breastfed. We think the microbiomes of non-exclusively breastfed babies could contribute to more stomach aches and colic."

When a mother and a baby engage in breastfeeding, a lot of hormones and health benefits come with the milk. It’s not just a feeding, but an exchange of microbes and healthy bacteria to help the baby ease into their transition from milk to solid foods. Researchers studied nine babies from the time they were 2 weeks to 14 months and found by just looking at what was going on inside their diaper they could unlock a new and significant breastfeeding benefit. Researchers saw a distinct difference between the babies who only drank breast milk and those who drank a combination of breast milk and formula.

"This study provides yet more support for recommendations by the World Health Organization and others to breastfeed exclusively during the first six months of life," the study’s coauthor Dr. Amanda Thompson, associate professor in the department of anthropology, said in a press release. "We can see from the data that including formula in an infant's diet does change the gut bacteria even if you are also breastfeeding. Exclusive breastfeeding seems to really smooth out the transition to solid foods."

The first few months of a baby’s life outside of the womb have a profoundly residual effect on the baby’s diet. Not only was it easier for a baby to go from liquids to solids, but it could also play a major role in digesting food and fighting off illnesses. Breastfed babies had 20 different bacterial enzymes that the other babies didn’t have, which helped them process the new food types easier.

"The study advances our understanding of how the gut microbiome develops early in life," Thompson said, "which is clearly a really important time period for a person's current and future health."

5 Additional Benefits of Breastfeeding

  1. Healthier Baby: Breastfed babies have the benefit of mom’s milk with boosted immunity. They have fewer incidences of pneumonia, colds, viruses, and gastrointestinal infections, such as diarrhea.
  2. Reduces SIDS: Breastfeeding lowers a baby’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome by nearly half. That means a parent can spend less time worrying about her baby dying out of nowhere.
  3. Baby’s BMI: There is a lower chance of the baby growing up into an obese child, adolescent, and adult if he is breastfed, based on 17 different studies. That’s improving babies' futures right here in the U.S., a country currently battling a childhood obesity crisis.
  4. Fewer Allergies: Babies who are fed from formula with cow's milk or soy oftentimes grow up to have more allergies than breastfed babies. Scientists believe it’s because of a protective immune factor known as secretory IgA, only found in breast milk, which provides a layer of protection in a baby’s intestinal tract.
  5. Stress Reduction for Mom: Breastfeeding can reduce stress levels, blood pressure, and risk of postpartum depression. Nursing triggers the release of a love-bonding hormone called oxytocin and helps to solidify and nurture the connection between mother and baby.

Source: Azcarate-Peril A, Thompson A, Cadenas MB, Lampl M, and Dobbs S, and Monteagudo-Mera A. Milk-and solid-feeding practices and daycard attendance are associated with differences in bacterial diversity, predominant communities, and metabolic and immune function of the infant gut microbiome. Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology. 2015.