Breast milk is the best food for your baby, and the many advantages of breastfeeding mean your baby benefits from your milk in lots of other important ways too.
You may have heard that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for six months at the very least, but what’s the reasoning behind this? Well, breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health, and if it was scaled up to near-universal levels, about 820,000 children’s lives would be saved every year1 – a pretty compelling argument.
The health benefits of breastfeeding
As well as nourishing him, breast milk protects your baby. Breast milk is full of live ingredients, including stem cells, white blood cells and beneficial bacteria,2 as well as other bioactive components, such as antibodies, enzymes and hormones,3 which all help fight infection, prevent disease, and contribute to normal healthy development.
Babies who are breastfed exclusively for their first six months are less likely to suffer from diarrhoea and sickness, gastroenteritis, colds and flu, ear and chest infections and thrush.4 And compared to formula-fed infants, exclusively breastfed babies are half as likely to be victims of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS or cot death).5
Of course, breastfed babies do get poorly sometimes but breastfeeding when your baby is sick has even more benefits: “If a baby gets an illness, or his mother does, the protective components in her milk tend to increase,” 6 explains Professor Peter Hartmann of the University of Western Australia, an internationally renowned expert on lactation and breastfeeding. “A breastfed baby is likely to recover faster than a formula-fed baby because the mother’s body will produce specific antibodies against whatever infection he’s picked up.”
And it’s not only about nutrition and immunity – breastfeeding when your baby is sick or upset comforts and soothes him, which is not to be underestimated as an important benefit. In fact, studies have shown that breastfeeding reduces crying and provides relief when babies are having vaccinations.7
Breast milk benefits for premature babies
Feeding your preemie your milk offers the best protection against potentially fatal conditions including sepsis, chronic lung disease and necrotising enterocolitis (NEC).8 Premature babies who are fed breast milk are also more likely to come home from hospital earlier.9
“Feeding your premature baby breast milk is the most beneficial thing you can do for him,” Professor Hartmann points out. “Every drop counts.” In fact, healthcare professionals view breast milk not just as nutrition, but as a medical intervention. Read more on how important breast milk is for premature babies.
How breastfeeding benefits your baby’s sleep
You might have heard that formula-fed babies sleep longer, but it seems that’s a myth. Research shows breastfed and formula-fed babies are just as likely to wake for milk during the night.10 But the difference is breastfed babies get back to sleep sooner. The oxytocin produced in your baby’s body when he breastfeeds makes him feel sleepy afterwards. And other hormones and nucleotides in your milk help your baby develop healthy circadian rhythms (sleep-wake patterns).11
Breastfeeding and baby brain development
Your baby’s first six months are a busy time for his rapidly growing brain – its mass almost doubles during this crucial period.12 A US study showed that toddlers and preschoolers who’d been exclusively breastfed for at least three months had brains with 20 to 30% more white matter – which connects different regions of the brain and transmits signals between them – than those who’d had no breast milk.13
The importance of breastfeeding for baby brain development is reflected in research across the globe. In a UK study,14 16-year-olds who’d been breastfed for six months or more as babies were more likely to get higher grades in their school exams. And Brazilian researchers found people who’d been breastfed for at least a year tended to earn more money by the time they were 30.15
Even when results are adjusted to take factors such as household income and mother’s education into account, it seems infants who are breastfed exclusively are more likely to have higher IQs than formula-fed babies.16 “There are a few ideas about why this is,” says Professor Hartmann. “One relates to the long-chain fatty acids that are present in breast milk, such as DHA, which has a positive effect on the brain and brain development.”17
And the latest research suggests breastfeeding has behavioural benefits too. In a study of 10,000 children, those who were breastfed for more than four months were 30% less likely to show problem behaviour at the age of five.18
The lifelong benefits of breastfeeding for your baby
Breastfeeding doesn’t just benefit your baby for the first six months. The longer he continues to have breast milk, the more advantages there are – especially for his health.
Every nursing session raises the level of oxytocin – the ‘love hormone’ – in both your bodies, encouraging bonding.19 This can form a firm foundation for future relationships, and may even help your little one cope with stress in later life.20
Research also shows children who were breastfed as babies are less likely to suffer from cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma,21 and tend to have better eyesight,22 and straighter teeth23 than those who had formula milk. Breastfeeding also helps to lower your baby’s risk of becoming obese or developing type 1 or type 2 diabetes24,25 as an adult.
So if you’re wondering when do the benefits of breastfeeding end, the answer is they last a lifetime. And the longer you continue to breastfeed, the more health benefits there are for you too.
For more information, read our free ebook The Amazing Science of Mother’s Milk now.
- Victora CG et al. Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect. Lancet. 2016;387(10017):475-490.
- Bode L et al. It’s alive: microbes and cells in human milk and their potential benefits to mother and infant. Adv Nutr. 2014;5(5):571-573.
- Ballard O, Marrow AL. Human milk composition: nutrients and bioactive factors. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2013;60(1):49-74.
- Ladomenou F et al. Protective effect of exclusive breastfeeding against infections during infancy: a prospective study. Arch Dis Child. 2010; 95(12):1004-1008.
- Vennemann MM et al. Does breastfeeding reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome? Pediatrics. 2009;123(3):e406-410.
- Hassiotou F et al. Maternal and infant infections stimulate a rapid leukocyte response in breastmilk. Clin Transl Immunology. 2013;2(4):e3.
- Harrison D et al. Breastfeeding for procedural pain in infants beyond the neonatal period. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;10:CD011248.
- Johnson TJ et al. Economic benefits and costs of human milk feedings: a strategy to reduce the risk of prematurity-related morbidities in very-low-birth-weight infants. Adv Nutr. 2014;5(2):207-212.
- Schanler RJ et al. Randomized trial of donor human milk versus preterm formula as substitutes for mothers’ own milk in the feeding of extremely premature infants. Pediatrics. 2005;116(2):400-406.
- Brown A, Harries V. Infant sleep and night feeding patterns during later infancy: association with breastfeeding frequency, daytime complementary food intake, and infant weight. Breastfeed Med. 2015;10(5):246-252.
- Sánchez CL et al. The possible role of human milk nucleotides as sleep inducers. Nutr Neurosci. 2009;12(1):2-8.
- Dekaban AS. Changes in brain weights during the span of human life: relation of brain weights to body heights and body weights. Ann Neurol. 1978 4(4):345-356.
- Deoni SC et al. Breastfeeding and early white matter development: A cross-sectional study. Neuroimage. 2013;82:77-86.
- Straub N et al. Economic impact of breast-feeding-associated improvements of childhood cognitive development, based on data from the ALSPAC. Br J Nutr. 2016:1-6.
- Victora CG et al. Association between breastfeeding and intelligence, educational attainment, and income at 30 years of age: a prospective birth cohort study from Brazil. Lancet Glob Health. 2015; 3(4):e199-205.
- Horta BL, Victora CG. Breastfeeding and adult intelligence – Authors’ reply. Lancet Glob Health. 2015;3(9):e522.
- Belkind-Gerson J et al. Fatty acids and neurodevelopment. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2008;47 Suppl 1:7-9
- Heikkilä K et al. Breast feeding and child behaviour in the Millennium Cohort Study. Arch Dis Child. 2011;96(7):635-642.
- Tharner A et al. Breastfeeding and its relation to maternal sensitivity and infant attachment. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2012;33(5):396-404.
- Montgomery SM et al. Breast feeding and resilience against psychosocial stress. Arch Dis Child. 2006;91(12):990-994.
- Bener A et al. Does prolonged breastfeeding reduce the risk for childhood leukemia and lymphomas? Minerva Pediatr. 2008;60(2):155-161.
- Singhal A et al. Infant nutrition and stereoacuity at age 4-6 y. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85(1):152-159.
- Peres KG et al. Effect of breastfeeding on malocclusions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Paediatr. 2015;104(467):54-61.
- Horta BL et al. Long-term consequences of breastfeeding on cholesterol, obesity, systolic blood pressure and type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Paediatr. 2015; 104(467):30-37
- Lund-Blix NA et al. Infant feeding in relation to islet autoimmunity and type 1 diabetes in genetically susceptible children: the MIDIA Study. Diabetes Care. 2015;38(2):257-263.