What are the Health Benefits of Breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding is still common and continues for a prolonged period in developing countries, whereas its rate has declined steeply in developed nations following the introduction of formula for babies.

Women who immigrate to these regions tend to take on the lactational characteristics of their host countries around the beginning of the 19th century.

Image Credit: Evgeny Atamanenko / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Evgeny Atamanenko / Shutterstock

It is significant that with each year of stay in the US, for instance, there is a 4% drop in the extent of breastfeeding overall, while the chances of breastfeeding until 6 months drops by 3%.

However, infant formula is modified cow’s milk, with high-grade protein, carbohydrate and fat, but breast milk is a complete food for the infant. It is completely digestible, transfers antibodies to the baby, as well as various lysozymes and hormones, which are intended to confer a multitude of benefits to the infant.

The colostrum, which is the first secretion from the breasts, is especially rich in antibodies, which play a crucial role in preventing many types of gastrointestinal and respiratory infections in the developing world. It is also concentrated, which helps the baby to regulate its fluid balance soon after birth when the kidneys are still getting into the rhythm of their work and would be swamped by large volumes of fluid.

Benefits to Health

Numerous observational studies have been carried out to assess the benefits of breastfeeding. These may be summarized as:

For Infants:

  • Reduced risk of death in infancy – it is thought that by giving babies in developing countries only breast milk for the first six months and then continuing partial breastfeeding until one year of life is completed, 1.3 million children under the age of five years could be saved from dying. This comes to an amazing 13% reduction in mortality, compared to 1% and 4% for Haemophilus influenzae and measles vaccinations, respectively.
  • Reduced rate of childhood illness.
  • Improved physical and mental development.
  • 5% reduction in the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm babies; notable, because 15% of these affected babies will die of the disease.
  • 64% reduction in acute diarrheal illnesses during infancy, because possibly contaminated water must be used to make up formula, and because immunity is still developing at this time. Even in developed countries, if exclusive breastfeeding for six months is practiced, there is a 53% reduction in diarrheal disease severe enough to warrant hospitalization. Even with partial breastfeeding, there is a 31% reduction.
  • More than a fourth of respiratory infections could be avoided with breastfeeding, whether partial or exclusive.
  • 72% reduction in respiratory infections, which require hospitalization in term babies who were breastfed.
  • Babies who were breastfed for 3 months or more have half the risk of otitis media than formula-fed babies do.
  • 20% reduced risk of obesity and overweight in childhood, adolescence and adulthood, with a possible 4% risk reduction for each added month of breastfeeding.
  • Reduced risk of type I diabetes by 20% and type II diabetes by 40% in later life with more than 3 months, or any breastfeeding, respectively.
  • Reduced total cholesterol levels in adult life.
  • 40% reduced risk of atopy in children with a positive family history, who had 3 or more months of breastfeeding in infancy.
  • 25% reduced risk of asthma before the age of ten years in children without a positive family history, who were breastfed for 3 or more months in infancy.
  • Reduced pain during a procedure.
  • Better performance in intelligence tests in childhood with one or more month of breastfeeding.
  • 35% reduction in sudden infant death syndrome,
  • 15% reduced risk of acute lymphocytic and acute myelogenous leukemia in children who were breastfed for 6 months or more.

For Mothers

  • Reduction of breast cancer risk by over 4% per year of breastfeeding, and by 28% if breastfeeding continued for more than a year.
  • 20% reduced risk of ovarian cancer.
  • 30% to 35% reduced risk of type 2 diabetes in women who breastfed and who did not have gestational diabetes.
  • Reduced risk of postnatal depression.
  • Reduced risk of conception during breastfeeding.
  • Higher rate of loss of gestational weight in mothers who breastfeed in the first six months.

Conclusion

In view of the above findings, it is vital to present the overwhelming normality of breastfeeding in infants, as the feeding technique that is natural, promotes health in both infants and their mothers in a variety of ways, prevents numerous illnesses and even death in childhood, and reverberates well into the future in the form of preventing several health conditions common in adult life. The American Association of Pediatricians endorses breast milk as the recommended feed for infants in the following forceful statement: “Exclusive breastfeeding is the reference or normative model against which all alternative feeding methods must be measured with regard to growth, health, development, and all other short- and long-term outcomes.”

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jun 11, 2019

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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