Over the past couple of decades, breastfeeding has become the clinical gold standard for infant nutrition. No other means of baby feeding requires zero money, prep, or sterilization. In fact, breastfeeding can save upwards of $1,500 in the baby’s first year. But besides its obvious convenience and cost-effectiveness, what makes breastfeeding so beneficial? We dug up the science of this timeless, nature-provided practice to shed light on how it benefits both baby and mom.
Benefits for Baby:
In terms of nutrition, breast milk is like nature’s perfect smoothie, supplying an optimal blend of easily-digestible carbohydrates, proteins, minerals, and vitamins. It boasts long-chain fatty acids like DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid), which are critical for brain and nervous system development, and a large dose of lactose, which fuels a baby’s around-the-clock growth. Starting with colostrum (the thick golden milk produced during pregnancy and just after birth), breast milk provides all the energy and nutrients an infant needs for the first six months of life.
The flavor of breast milk is as varied as the mother’s diet. Every food eaten by a breastfeeding mother is transmitted to her breast milk and then sampled by her baby. Therefore, early exposure to different tastes through breast milk can expand a child’s inherent palate and enhance enjoyment of particular flavors. A study in 2000 based in Philadelphia divided 46 women in their third trimester into different test groups and found that women who drank carrot juice while pregnant or lactating cultivated a preference for carrots in their babies. A breastfeeding mother passes on a deep attachment to the foods of her culture to her baby.
The short- and long-term health effects of breastfeeding for a baby are incredibly diverse. According to the CDC, breastfed babies have reduced risks of obesity, type 1 diabetes, severe lower respiratory disease, ear infections, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and gastrointestinal infections. Evidence has also found that breastfeeding can provide some form of protection from childhood asthma. Lowering the risk for so many health complications means fewer trips to the doctor or hospital. As a 2006 medical journal review concluded, “the early positive influences of human breast milk may be a bulwark against chronic disease in later life.”
How can breastfeeding protect against so many different illnesses? Human breast milk is a dynamic source of bioactive components and antibodies that help a baby fight off viruses and bacteria. As described in a 2017 medical journal article, human milk oligosaccharides help colonize the intestinal tract with probiotics and establish a microbiome that protects against pathogenic bacteria. This protection is unique and changes over time to meet a baby’s growing needs. There is also substantial evidence that breastfeeding may influence a baby’s immune system development.
In addition to being a perfect food source and a potent medicine, breast milk is also a powerful means of communication between mom and baby. There is scientific evidence that baby saliva reacts with breastmilk to create a biochemical synergism that boosts early immunity. While a baby is feeding from the breast, a vacuum is formed, delivering the infant’s saliva to receptors in the mother’s mammary gland. These receptors can detect signals about the baby’s immune status, and the mom’s breast milk adjusts its immunological composition in response. If the receptors detect the presence of pathogens, the mom’s body produces antibodies which travel through the breast milk back into the baby’s body, where they fight off the infection.
Benefits for Mom:
From the first moment your baby is placed on your chest, a mutual bond develops. Feeling the warmth of your baby’s body and maintaining eye contact with your baby triggers a release of oxytocin - the hormone that promotes feelings of love, bonding, and well-being. This hormone is also what makes the milk that is already in the breast flow for each breastfeeding session. Sometimes referred to as the “letdown reflex,” the release of oxytocin becomes conditioned to your feelings and sensations, such as touching, smelling, or hearing your baby.
Oxytocin has important psychological effects and is known to affect mothering behavior in animals. According to a medical article from 2013, oxytocin “has been shown to increase relaxation, attraction, facial recognition, and maternal care-giving behaviors, all necessary to ensure infant survival.” While inducing a state of calm and reducing stress in humans, oxytocin may have an impact on the mother-child interaction, enhancing feelings of affection and promoting emotional bonding. Perhaps due to the hormonal changes that encourage maternal caregiving, moms who breastfeed tend to have fewer instances of postpartum depression and less difficulty bonding with their babies.
The bonds of breastfeeding seem to last long after a woman stops breastfeeding. Research from 2018 examined the long-term effects of breastfeeding on maternal sensitivity, or the ability of a mom to perceive and respond effectively to her baby’s behavioral signals. The results showed that longer breastfeeding (up to age 3) predicted more maternal sensitivity throughout a child’s first decade of life. Breastfeeding not only builds maternal sensitivity, but it also has positive consequences for a mom’s relationship with her growing child.
A postpartum mom’s mental health and mood can be fragile in the months following childbirth. On top of a newborn’s constant needs and your own postpartum recovery, imagine dealing with the hormonal rollercoaster of the menstrual cycle...or another pregnancy. By pressing the pause button on ovulation and menstruation, exclusive breastfeeding can naturally increase birth spacing - an important factor in maternal mental health.
In addition to mental health benefits, breastfeeding also confers physical advantages. Initiating breastfeeding shortly after delivery sends a message from your brain to your uterus to help it contract, which reduces postpartum bleeding. The act of breastfeeding burns an extra 500 calories a day, which at first might result in an increased appetite and increased fat storage for milk production, but after three months, the trend becomes increased fat burning and weight loss. Therefore, breastfeeding could make bouncing back to your pre-pregnancy weight easier.
On top of the laundry list of health defenses for the baby, breastfeeding seems to provide the mother with long-term protection against certain cancers and diseases, including high blood pressure,