In one way, it can be hard to talk about breastfeeding benefits. The reason is that it can generate guilt in new moms who, for some reason, don’t breastfeed. And guilt is far from what makes a happy new mother and baby!
That said, there are real advantages of breastfeeding, both for mom and baby. I am personally quite amazed by all the possible positive effects.
Remember, the benefits don’t disappear if you have to combine breast milk with formula. To really boost your baby’s health, start eating healthy already during pregnancy.
Let’s start with taking a look at the many breastfeeding benefits for your baby. Benefits for nursing moms can be found further down the page.
10 Important Breastfeeding Benefits For Your Baby
- Protection against diseases
- Allergy protection
- Cognitive abilities
- Reduced risk for obesity
- Reduced risk for childhood leukemia
- Type 1 diabetes protection
- Lower risk of SIDS
- Less sensitive to stress
- Protection for preemies
- Sticky protection
1. Protection against diseases
Breast milk contains various nutrients and antimicrobial proteins. In addition, it provides immune protection and antibodies from the mother, which protect her baby from illnesses.
Breast milk reduces the risk of common infections, such as ear infections, respiratory problems, diarrhea, and urinary tract infection.
When comparing ever breastfeeding with exclusive formula feeding, it was found that breastfeeding reduces the risk of acute otitis media (middle ear infection) by 23%. This risk is reduced by 50% in babies who were exclusively breastfed compared to those babies who were exclusively given formula.
It was also shown that the risk of hospitalization for lower respiratory tract infection in the first year is reduced by 72% for infants who are exclusively breastfed for four or more months.
According to research, about a third of respiratory infections and half of all diarrhea episodes would be avoided by breastfeeding.
Several studies also indicate a connection between lack of breastfeeding and later development of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, two serious inflammatory bowel diseases. However, other studies failed to show that breastfeeding protects against inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Chron’s disease and ulcerative colitis. One explanation for these inconclusive results might be differences in the definition (exclusive and non-exclusive) and duration of breastfeeding that each study was using.
2. Allergy protection
Recent research indicated that breastfeeding, even when combined with formula feeding to some extent, can postpone allergies and asthma.
The breastfeeding benefits of protection from allergies later in life are not entirely clear-cut. However, one extensive study indicates that children that only breastfeed for at least four months have a lower risk of developing asthma and eczema during their first four years.
A meta-analysis of studies looking into the relationship between breastfeeding and asthma showed that children with no family history of asthma who were breastfed for at least three months have a 27% lower risk of asthma than those who were not breastfed.
In children younger than ten years, who have a family history of asthma, the risk was reduced by 40% if they were breastfed for at least three months when compared to children who weren’t breastfed.
There is evidence that children who were exclusively breastfed for at least 3 to 4 months have a lower incidence of eczema in the first 2 years of life.
Regarding food allergies, the results from different studies are still unclear. So, at this point, it can’t be concluded with certainty that breastfeeding can prevent or delay the onset of specific food allergies.
3. Cognitive Abilities
Several studies show that babies who were breastfed for at least six months have a higher IQ than other babies. For example, according to a study done in Belarus with a sample of 13,889 newborns, breastfeeding is significantly positively associated with IQ scores at age 6.
A study that measured cognitive abilities in 9 and 10-year-olds showed that breastfed children had higher results on measures of global intellect than the children of the same age who weren’t breastfed. Even more interestingly, the results on global intellect measures were highest for those children who were breastfed for more than 12 months.
Researchers believe that part of the explanation for better cognitive abilities in previously breastfed babies is the bonding between mother and child. Also, fatty acids in breast milk are believed to contribute to the baby’s brain development.
On the other hand, some studies didn’t find a strong association between breastfeeding and cognitive skills. One such study showed no significant association between breastfeeding, math, and reading skills after parent-child interaction was taken into account. It was concluded that cognitive improvement in a child is associated with the characteristics of the mother and not the act of breastfeeding itself.
A recent study suggests that the connection between breastfeeding and higher cognitive abilities is false or actually the opposite and that the results are due to the fact that moms with an academic education (and supposedly a higher IQ) tend to breastfeed their babies more.
I guess the jury is still out…
4. Reduced risk for obesity
While not unchallenged, several studies indicate a lower risk for adolescent and adult obesity as a breastfeeding benefit. A healthy eating pattern and less insulin in breast milk than in formula are two possible explanations.
It seems there is still no consensus on how much breastfeeding can reduce the risk of being overweight or obese in adolescence or adult life. For example, one study showed that the risk is reduced by 7% in breastfed children compared to non-breastfed. Another study reports a risk reduction of 24%.
However, most studies don’t mention whether this is the case only in exclusively breastfed babies or not. They also don’t describe if and how the duration of breastfeeding impacts the risk of obesity.
It also seems that there is a difference in this impact depending on whether human milk was given to a child by breastfeeding or by the bottle. Some studies suggest that infants fed by bottle, formula, or expressed milk show increased bottle emptying, less self-regulation, and excessive weight gain after six months of age than babies who were breastfed.
We can see that there is an association between breastfeeding and a lower risk of obesity in later life. However, we should still be cautious when interpreting how strong this association really is.
5. Reduced risk for childhood leukemia
Several studies reported a lower risk of childhood leukemia among breastfed babies.
A meta-analysis showed that breastfeeding for at least six months is associated with a 19% reduction in the risk of childhood leukemia.
According to research, breastfeeding for less than six months is still protective, but not as much.
One explanation of why breastfeeding has a protective role against childhood leukemia is that breast milk includes antibodies and has a prebiotic effect that helps promote a healthy gut microbiome. Furthermore, breast milk positively impacts the development of the baby’s immune system.
6. Type 1 diabetes protection
The reason why breastfeeding may protect against type 1 diabetes is still unclear.
However, one study indicates that the risk of getting type 1 diabetes is 1.5 times higher if a child is introduced to cow’s milk (through, e.g., formula) before the age of 4 months, compared to children who are only breastfed.
According to a study on the relationship between the duration of full or any breastfeeding and the risk of type 1 diabetes, the risk of developing type 1 diabetes is two times greater for children who were never breastfed.
Moreover, the results of another study indicate that there is a 15-30% lower risk of type 1 diabetes in childhood for those babies who were breastfed for more than three months or exclusively breastfed for more than two weeks after birth.
7. Lower risk of SIDS
Breastfeeding may reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
One study indicated that the risk of SIDS is reduced by 36% in children who were breastfed compared to those who weren’t breastfed.
Although it was previously believed that this protective mechanism is only associated with exclusive breastfeeding, subsequent studies contradicted it. Breastfeeding of any kind, exclusively or partially, protects against SIDS. Moreover, it was shown that exclusive breastfeeding doesn’t provide more protection than breastfeeding combined with formula feeding.
However, studies show that breastfeeding must continue for at least two months in order to have a protective role against SIDS.
Although any breastfeeding that lasts longer than two months is protective, it was shown that the protection increases with the duration of breastfeeding. For example, while any breastfeeding for 2-4 months lowers the risk of SIDS by about 40%, any breastfeeding longer than 6 months reduces that risk by about 64%.
8. Less sensitive to stress
A study indicates that breastfed children cope better with stress later in life.
One likely explanation for this relationship is the bonding rather than breast milk itself. You can learn how to use attachment parenting style for bonding with your baby here, regardless of if you breastfeed or not.
9. Protection for preemies
There are great short-term and long-term benefits of feeding preterm babies human milk.
These benefits are apparent while the babies are still in the newborn intensive care unit. It is also reported that babies who were fed breast milk have fewer hospital readmissions for illness in the year after they are released from the intensive care unit.
According to research, extremely preterm babies who were receiving the greatest amounts of breast milk while in the newborn intensive care unit had significantly greater results for mental, motor, and behavior ratings measured at 18 months and 30 months of age. These positive outcomes were shown even for those babies who weren’t fed breast milk exclusively. What matters is that they are predominantly given breast milk.
Premature babies also seem to get special protection from breastfeeding against infections and high blood pressure later in life.
10. Sticky protection
The protection remains for years after you have stopped breastfeeding your baby. And your baby will be protected even if you combine breastfeeding with formula.
8 Great Breastfeeding Benefits For Mom
- Breastfeeding helps your uterus contract
- Emotional benefits
- Less tired
- Weight loss
- Reduced cancer risk
- Protection against osteoporosis
- Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
- Simple, cheap, and practical
1. Breastfeeding helps your uterus contract
The hormone oxytocin, which is released in your body during breastfeeding, helps the contraction of your uterus back to normal. Besides looking pregnant for a shorter period after giving birth, this also means that you may have shorter postpartum bleeding.
2. Emotional benefits
There are some interesting emotional, and psychological benefits of breastfeeding.
Some studies indicate that the risk of postnatal depression is increased for those mothers who don’t breastfeed or who wean early.
Breastfeeding is linked to stress reduction and more positive feelings in the mother because it promotes the production of oxytocin and prolactin, hormones that are soothing.
Because of its nature, breastfeeding promotes more skin-to-skin contact and increases the physical and emotional bonding between the mother and the baby, which is beneficial for both the mom and the child.
3. Less tired
It may seem strange, but breastfeeding mothers seem to be less exhausted than those who feed their babies formula, according to some studies. How in the world is that possible? Well, breastfeeding hormones may help moms relax and sleep better.
Research also shows that parents of babies who were breastfed in the evening and/or at night slept, on average 40-45 minutes longer than those parents whose babies were given formula. In addition, parents whose children were given formula at night reported experiencing more sleep disturbance than those whose babies were breastfed at night.
(I know, I know, if you breastfeed right now and feel like you are about to die from lack of sleep, this may seem like a really poor joke. I breastfed both my babies, so I can’t personally tell if there really is a difference. This is what research studies claim. You are more than welcome to share your thoughts on this by leaving a comment below. :-) )
4. Weight loss
According to some sources, breastfeeding can help nursing mothers to burn around 500 calories more every day. So unless you “eat for two,” breastfeeding may help you lose some weight. A nice breastfeeding benefit!
However, the reports on the relationship between breastfeeding and postpartum weight loss are still inconclusive. Several studies showed that many other factors have more significant effects on weight retention or postpartum weight loss than breastfeeding.
5. Reduced cancer risk
Some studies indicate that the risk of getting both breast and ovarian cancer is reduced through breastfeeding. The lower estrogen levels during the period of breastfeeding are likely to play a role.
One meta-analysis reported that the risk of breast cancer reduces by 4.3% for each year of breastfeeding, while another reported a risk reduction of 28% for 12 or more months of breastfeeding.
When it comes to the risk of ovarian cancer, it was shown that the risk is reduced by 21% in nursing mothers compared to those who never breastfed. However, because there were differences in the reported duration of breastfeeding in different studies taken into analysis, this data should still be interpreted with caution.
6. Protection against osteoporosis
There are conflicting results in different studies regarding breastfeeding and osteoporosis. Mothers lose some bone density during the breastfeeding period, but this appears to be reversed after weaning.
Some studies indicate a lower incidence of osteoporosis later in life among women that have breastfed. On the other hand, some studies report that lactation doesn’t seem to impact long-term changes in bone mineral densities.
7. Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
A study from 2014 indicates a lower risk of diabetes type 2 for moms who breastfeed their baby for at least 6 months.
However, it was shown that breastfeeding had no significant effect on the already increased risk of diabetes in women who have a history of gestational diabetes.
8. Simple, cheap, and practical
If breastfeeding works, it is very convenient and economical compared to formula. It is also environmentally friendly…
This was a long list of breastfeeding benefits for mom and baby, right?! When I did the research to complete this list, I decided to postpone the introduction of solid food for my baby.
But at some point, it is time for solid food. Fun, exciting, and greasy. For lots of baby feeding tips, click here.
More about breastfeeding that you might find interesting
- The magic components of breast milk, which keep baby healthy
- The taste of breast milk and mom’s diet
- What foods to eat while breastfeeding (and not)
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Paula Dennholt founded Easy Baby Life in 2006 and has been a passionate parenting and pregnancy writer since then. Her parenting approach and writing is based on studies in cognitive-behavioral models and therapy for children and her experience as a mother and stepmother. Life as a parent has convinced her of how crucial it is to put relationships before rules. She strongly believes in positive parenting and a science-based approach.
Paula cooperates with a team of pediatricians that you find here. They write or review all health-related articles.