It’s probably fair to say that most expectant mothers have heard that breastfeeding is good and most experts recommend it. However, these same mothers may also have been told that nursing their baby will be very difficult and time-consuming or that the benefits aren’t all that impressive anyway.
Even though we should be thankful that science has provided us with good substitutes for breast milk when necessary, formula can never duplicate all the amazing properties that a mother’s own body can produce. Breast milk contains unique nutrients, living cells and is constantly changing to meet your baby’s specific needs.
If you are thinking about nursing your baby but are still a little unsure what all the hype is about, here are some of the unique benefits that breastfeeding can provide. Make sure you also read our breastfeeding essentials guide.
Nutrition Tailored to Your Child’s Age and Needs
Breast milk supplies all the protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals your baby needs to thrive in just the right amounts for their little bodies. The proportions of these nutrients shift according to your baby’s needs throughout the day and as they grow older.
Colostrum is the first milk your body produces. It is rich in immune properties and also has a mild laxative effect that makes it easier for your baby to have their first bowel movement.
After two to four days, your body will begin to produce mature milk in much greater amounts. This milk contains many of the same nutrients as colostrum, but it will be much more dilute. Your milk volume will adjust to meet your baby’s needs as their tummy grows.
Your milk production will likely decrease once your baby starts eating solid foods and drinking other liquids. Your milk will still contain immune factors and other nutrients, but it will be in a more concentrated form.
Your breast milk even changes throughout each day. Milk volume is typically higher and the milk ejection reflex is at its strongest in the morning to meet your baby’s need for a greater amount of milk after a longer stretch of sleep at night.
Evening milk is ideal for babies who will be going to bed soon. Your body produces less volume and the milk contains greater amounts of calming elements like serotonin. Additionally, the percentage of fat is higher, which can help your baby feel full, satisfied and (hopefully!) ready to sleep at night.
Transfers Antibodies from Mother To Baby
One of the most amazing aspects of breast milk is its immunological properties. A mother’s milk contains a portion of the antibodies she has developed over the course of her life, and this specific blend is ideal for providing a baby with customized protection for their specific environment.
Breastfeeding can especially benefit a baby when they get sick. During the nursing process, a small portion of the baby’s saliva gets absorbed into the mother’s skin. The mother’s immune system can then produce more antibodies against the specific pathogen that the baby has, and transfer these immune cells to her baby through the milk.
As a result of the antibodies and immune support breastfed babies receive, they tend to get sick less often. These are just a few of the illnesses that breastfeeding can help a baby to avoid.
- Ear infections
- Diabetes Type 1 and 2
- Upper Respiratory Infections
- Certain cancers, including leukemia
Since breastfed babies usually have fewer illnesses, the entire family typically experiences less sickness and the parents tend to miss less work.
Helps Reduce SIDS Risk
Researchers have studied the link between breastfeeding and reduced Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) cases for years. A recent study shows that any breastfeeding for at least two months cuts the instance of SIDS by over half. The risk continues to drop as nursing continues for a longer time.
Even though researchers are still unsure exactly why nursing helps protect babies against SIDS, there are a few theories:
- Breast milk’s immune factors help the baby fight off potentially dangerous infections.
- Breastfeeding helps a baby better learn how to use their mouth and neck muscles.
- A baby digests breast milk much faster than formula, and the need for frequent feedings throughout the night could prevent the baby from sleeping too deeply.
May Help a Mother Recover More Quickly After Delivery
Breastfeeding triggers the release of oxytocin. This substance stimulates the “happy” center of the brain, which is why nursing can be such a powerful bonding experience for a mother.
Oxytocin release has additional benefits, however. It also triggers the milk-ejection reflex in the breasts and stimulates the uterine muscles to contract. The faster the uterus returns to its normal size, the faster postpartum bleeding typically stops.
Depending on the type of formula you use and how much your baby eats, it’s likely that you will spend at least $50 on formula per month. This cost could be much higher if your baby needs hypoallergenic or another specialized type of formula. You will also need to invest in bottles, nipples, cleaning products and transport supplies.
Breastfeeding does carry a small cost for the extra food and water a mother will need to produce the amount of milk her baby will consume, and a breast pump and accessories may be an additional one-time cost if insurance does not pick up the tab. However, these costs are significantly smaller when compared to what you would spend feeding formula.
Less Packaging Waste
Each empty formula canister ends up in the trash, and your baby could easily go through at least 48 canisters in their first year. Additionally, energy and resources go into producing each container of formula, and distribution by plane, train or truck uses fuel.
Feeding your baby directly from the breast produces almost no waste, with the exception of nursing pads, nipple shields and any soothing creams you may need. It’s likely that you will not even need to use these products once you get past the first couple of months.
Easier in the Long Run
The first few weeks of breastfeeding definitely have the potential to be a challenge. However, after you and your baby have both had the chance to get the hang of things and settle into a routine, nursing typically turns out to be faster and more convenient than dealing with formula and bottles.
- You will never have to worry about mixing or warming a bottle of formula away from home or in the middle of the night.
- Your milk is always fresh and just the right temperature.
- You will never have to make an emergency trip to the store for more breast milk.
- You don’t have to pack any extra items while traveling.
- Breastfeeding in public is becoming more widely accepted all the time. If you feel more comfortable using a cover, there are many styles and various price points to choose from.
- Although you will always be the only person that can nurse your baby directly from the breast, your partner or other caregivers can feed your baby bottles of pumped milk once breastfeeding is firmly established.
- No bottles to sanitize if you directly nurse.
Comforting for Baby and Mother
Nursing your baby is not simply a way to feed them. It also allows you to have skin-to-skin time with your child, and the very act of nursing is often supremely soothing for a baby. The sucking motion is a comforting trigger for almost all babies, and when combined with the warmth and security of being held by their mother, most upset babies calm down within minutes.
As mentioned above, breastfeeding triggers the mother’s brain to release oxytocin, a substance that promotes happy, content and peaceful feelings. Mothers often view nursing as a special time between themselves and their baby, and breastfeeding often seems to help a mother develop a strong and intuitive relationship with her child.
May Help Mother Lose Pregnancy Weight
It’s common knowledge that a pregnant woman is eating for two, but that is at least equally true for a nursing mom. Your body requires 400 to 500 extra calories per day to produce milk.
While this is not true for every mother, many breastfeeding moms find that they return to their pre-pregnancy weight more quickly and easily than they may have expected.
This is not an excuse to have a candy and pizza free-for-all, however. Your breasts will still produce healthy breast milk for your baby even if your diet isn’t completely ideal, but your own body may end up weakened and depleted if you don’t feed yourself nourishing foods and plenty of water daily.
Can Offer Mother and Baby Some Protection Against Certain Cancers
Although it’s not a guarantee, women who breastfeed for at least six months seem to have a lower instance of both breast and ovarian cancers. Experts believe this is due to altered hormone levels and increased tissue turnover during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Both pregnancy and nursing suspend ovulation and cause the body to produce less estrogen. Since estrogen is often a contributor to the formation of certain cancers, a lower blood estrogen level corresponds to a lower risk for cancer. In preparation for breastfeeding, the body also sheds old and potentially damaged breast tissue cells and replaces them with new cells.
This protective effect grows as the amount of time without ovulation increases.
- The risk for breast cancer dropped by more than 4% for every 12 months a mother breastfed. You can achieve this by nursing a single child or cumulatively with successive children.
- Ovarian cancer rates dropped even more with extended breastfeeding, and mothers who nursed for 31 months had a dramatically reduced risk.
Breastfeeding may also lower your child’s risk of certain cancers. Since breastfed children tend to maintain a healthier body weight, they also seem to have a decreased chance of developing cancers associated with obesity.
Can Give the Mother a Chance to Slow Down
Life with a new baby can be hectic. Your baby digests a meal of breast milk at a much faster rate than one of formula, and you may find yourself feeling like the only thing you do all day long is nurse. That may not be far from the truth, but perhaps it’s by design.
Since you are the only one who can nurse your baby, you are essentially forced to let others take over some of your other regular responsibilities. A new mom’s body has just spent a tremendous amount of energy during pregnancy, labor and delivery. Slowing down and sitting still while holding your baby close to feed every hour or two can be a perfect chance to simply let your body rest and heal.
When Breastfeeding Just Isn’t Working
Despite your best efforts, perhaps you are beginning to suspect that breastfeeding is simply not right for you or your baby. If any of these statements are true for you, it may be time to consider switching to a different form of feeding.
- Your baby is not gaining weight or growing according to schedule.
- Your baby is experiencing developmental delays.
- Your baby has poor sleep and general fussiness.
- You feel a great deal of stress or anxiety about feedings.
- You fear that you will be a failure as a mother if you don’t breastfeed.
- Breastfeeding is interfering with your relationship with your baby, partner or other loved ones.
Schedule an appointment with your baby’s healthcare provider to discuss your concerns and get their professional opinion. If your provider recommends supplementing or totally switching to formula, follow their instructions right away.
The most important thing is not that your baby is breastfed but that they are fed in whatever way enables them to grow and thrive. Feeding is about much more than simply getting a full tummy; it’s about caring for your baby and giving them the best nourishment you possibly can. Additionally, keep in mind that some breastfeeding is better than no breastfeeding. No one can ever take away the breast milk your child has already received, and you can still provide your baby with some of the benefits of breast milk even if you can’t nurse them exclusively.
This can be a painful place for a mom to find herself. However, do your best to reject any notion that you have failed in some way. It’s also totally healthy to feel some sadness over the loss of how you had hoped to feed your baby, so make sure to give yourself the time you need to mourn.
Remember, the thing your baby needs most from you is your unconditional love from the heart, and you can give that in spades whether you feed them from a bottle or the breast.
Breastfeeding can provide a great opportunity for both and your child to reap some incredible benefits both in the short term and for years to come. It’s pretty amazing when you stop to think that the female body is capable of producing such a nutritious, complex and adaptive substance.
Have you had an experience with breastfeeding? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!