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Breastfeeding: The Gift of a Lifetime

Benefits of Breastfeeding

Caring for your newborn infant is a wondrous adventure, but it also can be challenging and sometimes exhausting. Although your heart is overflowing with love, it can be tough to create new routines to meet your baby’s needs.

In the midst of the joyful chaos is an abundance of well-meaning advice offered by family members and friends. While wading through that advice can be as confusing as sorting through the clean laundry to find a pair of tiny matching baby socks, one suggestion is 100 percent trustworthy: Breastfeeding is good for both you and your baby.

If you’re on the fence about breastfeeding, it’s time to hop off. The World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology all are on the same page. They recommend that women exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months, then supplement breastfeeding with solid food for at least another year.

Breast Milk is Your Superpower

All moms are superheroes, but when it comes to nourishing your baby, your breast milk is your superpower. From the moment your little one latches on, they receive the ideal balance of nutrients and infection-fighting antibodies. Breast milk contains live cells and growth factors that promote your baby’s development. Best of all, your milk’s special mixture of fats works to develop your newborn’s brain and eyes – something that formula simply can’t replicate.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If your baby was born premature, breast milk is the elixir that helps protect them from chronic lung disease, infections, certain eye problems, and necrotizing enterocolitis (or NEC, a condition that causes part of the infant’s bowel to die). Once your baby is home, breast milk can help prevent an unwanted return to the hospital. As a breastfed baby, your infant also will face less risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

The milk your body produces delivers a bounty of other benefits. For example, your milk helps activate and sustain your baby’s immune system while keeping allergies at bay. Most baby formula is made either from cow’s milk or soy, which rank as the No. 1 and No. 2 allergies in the United States. When babies are introduced to casein (the protein in cow’s milk) or soy, sensitivities can be triggered that lead to allergies later.

As your baby grows, your milk changes to adapt to your child’s needs. Over the short term, that makes life easier for both of you. Your readily digestible milk and its absorbable nutrients mean your little one is likely to have fewer bouts of diarrhea, constipation, and spitting up.

Yet breastfeeding does so much more than lessen the need for vigilance and cleanup. Research shows that breastfed babies have fewer and less severe respiratory, urinary, and other infections, and that kids who were breastfed are less likely to have childhood cancers, asthma, diabetes, eczema, and chronic bowel disease. They also tend to have healthier teeth, a better response to vaccines, and higher scores on IQ and development tests throughout childhood. Who wouldn’t want to give her baby those advantages?

It turns out that breastfeeding is the gift that keeps on giving, as the benefits last well into adulthood. There is evidence that adults who were breastfed have lower cholesterol levels and are less likely to have heart disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.

Breastfeeding Gives You a Boost

Your baby gains countless advantages when you breastfeed, but you get a boost, too. It takes energy – in the form of calories – to produce breast milk, so breastfeeding can put you on the fast track to hitting your pre-pregnancy weight. In addition, breastfeeding comforts your little one more quickly than formula, and when your baby is less fussy, you’re happier as well.

There’s also an economic advantage to breast milk. While estimates vary, breastfeeding likely can save more than $1,500 in formula and related costs over the first year of your baby’s life. Considering that breast milk creates health benefits for your baby, you’ll likely miss less work time because you’ll have to make fewer trips to the pediatrician. Those dollars can add up.

But perhaps the best perks can be traced to the power of oxytocin, more commonly known as the “love hormone.” When you feel tingling in your breasts before you feed your baby or experience “letdown” when your little one cries, you can thank oxytocin. Oxytocin production is sustained over the years you breastfeed. This conveys a bevy of benefits, including less bleeding after delivery and a lower risk of postpartum depression. As a new mom, you’ll especially appreciate oxytocin’s role in generating feelings of calmness and in promoting strong bonds of connection with your infant.

Just as breast milk helps your baby for his or her entire life, breastfeeding helps you over the long run. It lowers your risk of breast and ovarian cancers, osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes.

In short, breastfeeding is a win for your baby and a win for you. Your milk has medicinal properties that are perfectly matched to your little one, and the unbreakable bond you form while breastfeeding can’t be overestimated.

Click here to learn more about breastfeeding support services at UAB Medicine.