The health effects of breastfeeding are well recognized and apply to mothers and children. Though it is most apparent during infancy, these benefits have enduring effects that promote optimal health throughout the life of the breastfed baby and his mother. Human milk is a complex, living substance with numerous disease-fighting and health-promoting ingredients. It is a complete infant support system that provides both nutrition and protection. Breast milk contains immune molecules called antibodies that destroy germs. The mother’s immune system makes these antibodies and they constantly adapt. When a baby or mother is exposed to a new germ, the mother’s immune cells are activated and manufacture antibodies to combat that specific germ. These antibodies and disease-fighting cells will quickly appear in the milk and the mother will pass them to her baby at the next feeding. There are hundreds of human milk components that interact synergistically to both nourish and protect infants and young children.
A UNICEF report says about 95% children in India were breastfed at some point in last year’s and only 41.6% of babies are breastfed within an hour of being born, despite 79% of women delivering in a healthcare institution. The study found that globally every year approximately 7.6 million babies were not breastfed. It also added that though breast milk protects babies and mothers against deadly diseases, and leads to better IQ and educational outcomes, an estimated 21% of babies in high-income countries are never breastfed. In low-and-middle-income countries, the figure is 4% and babies from the poorest families have rates for breastfeeding at 2 years that are 1.5 times higher than those from the richest families.
Some of the benefits are long-lasting and appear to remain with mothers for years after they have weaned their last child.
Benefits for Newborn. Breastfeeding is good for the digestive tract. Babies who are formula-fed are sixteen times more likely to have diarrhea than breastfed babies. Breastfeeding may protect against Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and celiac disease. Breastfed babies have fewer colds, respiratory infections, ear infections, and occurrences of influenza. Exclusively breastfeeding for at least three months reduces the risk of juvenile diabetes (Type I) by up to 30%. It also reduces the risk of developing late-onset or Type II diabetes. Evidence suggests breastfed babies are less likely to develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease as adults. Breastfed infants have fewer childhood cancers and baby girls will have less chance of contracting breast and ovarian cancer as adults. Breastfeeding for more than four months reduces the risk of hospitalization for a respiratory infection. Even when a breastfed baby gets sick, the illness is usually less severe and lasts a shorter time than the same illness in a baby not receiving mother’s milk. Exclusive breastfeeding lowers the risk of food allergies, asthma, eczema, and skin rashes. Breast milk contains high levels of certain fats that are required to support brain and nerve growth. Breastfed children have higher IQs, better developed neurological systems, and sharper vision. Breastfeeding promotes a strong attachment. The act of breastfeeding ensures that a baby will be in his mother’s arms many times every day; in fact, a breastfed baby is touched and held almost twice as much as a formula-fed infant. Attachment is not a parenting style, but a biological necessity for normal mental health and optimal brain development. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). One theory suggests that because breastfed babies sleep less deeply, they are more likely to arouse if having breathing difficulty. Breastfeeding’s protection from infection may also help lower the risk of SIDS.
Benefits for Mother. Breastfeeding enhances attachment. Every time a mom nurses her baby, she releases the hormone oxytocin. This hormone not only causes a mother to release her milk (the milk ejection or let-down reflex), but it makes her fall in love with her baby. It has been dubbed the “mothering” hormone. Oxytocin also provides another of breastfeeding’s great benefits: protecting women’s mental health. Oxytocin down-regulates stress. The effects of constantly lowering stress during breastfeeding persist long past weaning. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. This benefit is dose-related and cumulative, the longer a mother breastfeeds, the lower her risk of developing breast cancer. The cycle of pregnancy, breastfeeding, and weaning may be important for the health of the breast. Weaning completes the cycle. Lower estrogen levels during breastfeeding may contribute to the decreased risk of both breast and ovarian cancer. Women who do not breastfeed have a 1.5-fold increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Breastfeeding reduces the risk of osteoporosis. New mothers experience a loss in bone density during the early months of breastfeeding; but as their fertility returns, their bones act like sponges, absorbing extra calcium. Breastfeeding helps mothers lose weight. Making milk for one baby requires approximately 500 hundred calories a day. Women who breastfeed have a lowered risk of developing metabolic syndrome which is characterized by diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease. A recent theory suggests that breastfeeding reverses changes that occur in a woman’s body during pregnancy. These changes are increased fat stores, elevated blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, and increased insulin resistance. In other words, during pregnancy women develop mild metabolic syndrome. Breastfeeding can actually reset these changes.
Breastfeeding moms experience improved sleep and relaxation. Evidence shows that breastfeeding women fall asleep more quickly and actually get more sleep. Breastfeeding encourages normal uterine contractions that not only control postpartum bleeding but return the uterus to the pre-pregnant state more rapidly than in non-breastfeeding mothers. Breastfeeding mothers will miss fewer workdays because their babies are less likely to be sick.
Breastfeeding is Green. Increased breastfeeding would decrease health care costs worldwide.
Dr. Anshu Rani | Obstetrics & Gynaecology | Narayana Multispeciality Hospital Ahmedabad