The overall benefit of breastfeeding babies is scientifically established. The majority of medical experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, strongly recommend that mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and do not rely on formulas, juices or water for their baby’s nutrients. Even after the introduction of other foods, mothers are encouraged to continue to breastfeed throughout the first year of their baby’s life, and the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for two years or longer.
Breast milk not only improves babies’ health and enhances their development, but also positively influences them into adulthood. Below are 4 scientifically-backed reasons why mothers (and their babies) should be thankful for breast milk in this season of gratitude:
Reason One: Nutrition
It is well-established that breast milk has the best nutrition for babies, even more so than formulas currently available. Compared to other options, breast milk has the optimal combination of sustenance that babies need for growth, including vitamins, proteins and fats. The composition of human milk even adapts over the first few months to deliver the optimal nutrition each baby needs over time.
For example, breast milk first produces colostrum, a nutrient-rich fluid, made specifically for newborns. The complex biological quality of breast milk supports the development of immunity and digestive tracts with its high protein, low sugar and other beneficial compounds. No formula on the market compares to human milk’s nutrients for infants.
Reason Two: Healthy Weight for Babies & Beyond
During the first year, mothers who breastfeed will likely see their babies gain an optimal amount of weight over time, rather than become obese later on in childhood. WHO has even shared its biological, behavioral and contextual rationale on why exclusively breastfeeding is important to reduce the risk of childhood obesity.
Furthermore, a 2015 KiGGS study looked more closely to see if there was further evidence of the beneficial effect of breastfeeding on childhood obesity. The scientists and researchers found that mothers who had breastfed the first four months had a significant reduction in the odds of overweight and obese children compared to those who weren’t breastfed or who were breastfed for a shorter period. The study highlighted that the effect seemed to be strongest in children of primary school age.
Reason Three: Immunity
In addition to its benefits for healthy weight, breast milk is also crucial for infants’ immunity during their fragile first weeks of life. Breast milk contains antibodies that help babies’ immune systems fend off viruses and bacterial infections. It also lowers the risk of asthma or allergies that can affect children in the long-term.
Formula does not provide the antibodies babies need, including immunoglobulin A, which is found in colostrum. Just last year, a study from the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh found that immunoglobulin A is necessary for preventing necrotizing enterocolitis, which is an often deadly bacterial disease of the intestine that can affect preterm infants. Many more scientific reports have also found that babies who are not fed breast milk may run the risk of more health issues, such as diarrhea and pneumonia, as this BMC Public Health study concludes. It is also thought to lower the chances of sudden infant death syndrome, ear infections, respiratory illnesses, diabetes and cancer.
Reason Four: Intelligence
The list of reasons why parents should be thankful for breast milk could go on and on, but one last benefit I’d like to share is that breastfeeding has been linked to higher IQ scores in later childhood. That said, some reports suggest the physical intimacy, touch and eye contact of breastfeeding mothers may play a role in their babies’ higher intelligence in addition to the nutritional profile of breast milk. So human milk alone can’t take all the credit.
Interestingly, a 2011 Pediatr Res study found that the effect of breast milk on producing high cognitive levels was particularly true for male babies. However, it should be noted that a 2018 PLOS Medicine study later showed that by age 16, the benefits of breastfeeding had no discernible effect on cognitive function.
While not always the center of attention during pregnancy and early motherhood, the amazing qualities of breast milk should not be overlooked and are backed with scientific evidence. All of that is in addition to it being the most cost-effective and convenient option for most mothers. This is just another example of how mothers are real superheroes for their children.