We’ve all heard the catchphrase “breast is best,” but what exactly are some of the benefits of breastfeeding?
While you may assume it’s all about the nutrients in the breast milk, the benefits of breastfeeding go way beyond the basics of nutrition. There are also numerous short-term and long-term benefits for moms.
25 Incredible Benefits of Breastfeeding for Babies and Moms
The benefits of breastfeeding include:
- Breastfed babies are less likely to die of SIDS, suffer from some common childhood illnesses or develop certain childhood cancers.
- Mothers who breastfeed have a faster physical recovery from the birth, burn more calories, and get more sleep.
- Both mothers and babies experience a lifetime reduction in the risk of obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for the Baby
Breastfeeding your baby provides benefits while they are breastfeeding, throughout their childhood, and even for the rest of their lives.
Babies Get Colostrum from Breast Milk
Colostrum is a unique type of breastmilk that you produce for a short time after delivery. This thick, yellow, creamy milk provides super-concentrated doses of nutrition in tiny amounts that are easy for your newborn to digest (1).
Colostrum acts as a natural laxative, ensuring your baby passes meconium, the black goop their body has built up in the guts during their time in the womb. Passing meconium also helps to reduce the chances of your baby developing jaundice (2).
Breast Milk Digests More Easily
Breast milk has less protein than formula, so you might think formula is better.
Your baby absorbs almost all of the protein in breastmilk, but roughly half of the protein in formula. The rest of the proteins in formula pass through the digestive system. This is what gives formula-fed babies their firm poop, while breastfed babies have a more liquid poo.
Breastfeeding May Prevent Constipation
Breastfed babies are less likely to become constipated than their formula-fed counterparts. This is thanks to the combination of the laxative effects and the presence of more digestible proteins in breast milk.
In addition, breastfed babies usually poop less often than formula-fed babies.
Some breastfed babies have several small, semi-liquid bowel movements a day. However, it is not unusual for an exclusively breastfed baby to go five or six days without one. Meanwhile, formula-fed babies tend to have multiple soft paste to firm poops every day.
Breast Milk Contains Antibodies
When you have an infection, your immune system produces antibodies that act as reminders to your body. Then, when your body encounters a virus or bacteria the second time, your body recognizes the infection straight away and attacks it quickly, before it can make you sick.
Breast milk contains antibodies from mom’s immune system, passing them to the baby. So it’s less likely your baby will get sick from some illnesses, including:
- Middle ear infections.
- Colds and flu.
- Stomach flu, diarrhea, or vomiting.
- Chest, ear, nose, and throat infections.
Breastfed Babies Are Less Likely to Die of SIDS
When a baby without any known health problems or illnesses dies without explanation, it is called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. Scientists do not know exactly what causes SIDS, but they do know that some things reduce the risks of it happening (3).
Giving a baby breastmilk for their first two months or more halves the risk of SIDs (4). This benefit is true for babies who are exclusively breastfed and for those who receive a mix of breastmilk and formula.
Breastfeeding Could Help Your Baby Establish Sleep Patterns
Melatonin is a hormone we produce at night. Our bodies react to the lack of sunlight, produce melatonin, and we feel sleepy. This melatonin passes into breast milk.
A small study found that breastfed babies sleep slightly more than formula-fed babies and are quicker to establish a difference between daytime and nighttime sleeping. Researchers think this may be because the melatonin in breast milk helps “train” our body’s natural sleep patterns (5).
Breast Milk Could Make Your Child a Less Picky Eater
Flavors from the food you eat pass into your breastmilk. As a result, when a mom has a diet rich in different foods and flavors, her baby will be exposed to that same variety of flavors. This means a breastfed baby gets to experience a wide range of tastes, but a formula-fed baby does not.
When a breastfed baby is weaned, they are less surprised and less likely to reject new flavors.
Breastfeeding Reduces Speech and Orthodontic Problems
The way a baby sucks when feeding affects the way our mouths and airways develop.
This pattern of development, along with the fact that breastfed babies are switched from side to side and do not feed in the same position, means breastfed babies have fewer orthodontic issues later in life.
In addition, breastfed babies appear to be less likely to need speech therapy when they’re older. This is possibly due to the more natural, balanced muscle and bone development of the face.
Breastfed Babies Have Lower Rates of Some Childhood Cancers
Although they do not know precisely why, scientists have found babies breastfed for over six months have lower rates of acute childhood lymphocytic leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The benefits are more significant when a baby is exclusively breastfed for at least six months. However, babies who received a mix of formula and breast milk for six months still had a reduced risk.
Breastfeeding Reduces the Risk of Obesity Later in Life
Children who are exclusively breastfed are less likely to develop obesity in either childhood or in later life. This could be for a couple of reasons.
- Breastfed babies have higher levels of the hormone leptin in their system. Leptin helps to regulate weight, appetite, and fat storage. It’s thought that as a result, breastfeeding teaches your body to respond more appropriately to food and hunger.
- The other theory is that breastfeeding makes mothers more in tune with their baby’s signals, reducing the likelihood of overfeeding them. This leads to adults who are more in tune with their body’s signals and less likely to overeat.
Breastfed Babies May Be Smarter
A 2017 study published in Pediatrics found that babies who were breastfed for at least six months showed better problem-solving skills and were less hyperactive at the age of three than formula-fed babies. By the age of five, though, there was no difference (6).
However, another study followed children until the age of 30 and administered IQ tests. They found the breastfed babies scored higher in tests and earned more than adults who were formula-fed as babies (7).
Breastfeeding Protects Against Diabetes
Any breastfeeding — exclusive or not — for 12 months or exclusive breastfeeding for six months or more decreases a child’s risk of developing diabetes later in life.
Children who had never been breastfed had double the risk of developing type 1 diabetes, according to a Scandinavian study that followed almost 156,000 children (8).
In addition, a significant risk factor for type 2 diabetes is obesity. Breastfed babies are less likely to become obese adults, so they are also less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Breastfed Babies Develop Fewer Cancers As Adults
Babies who are breastfed are less likely to develop kidney, rectal, endometrial, pancreatic, and post-menopausal cancers.
Researchers think that this is because obesity is a significant risk factor for some cancers and breastfed babies are less likely to grow into obese adults. Also, breastfed babies are more likely to have an effective, well-regulated immune system, which could also reduce your cancer risk.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for the Mother
Breastfeeding doesn’t just benefit your baby. It has multiple short-term and long-term benefits for you.
Your Uterus Shrinks Back Faster
Breastfeeding releases oxytocin, which has lots of effects on your body. One of the things oxytocin does is that it causes your uterus to shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size more quickly (9).
The oxytocin makes your uterine muscles contract and this, in turn, reduces the amount of postpartum bleeding and the risk of hemorrhage.
You’ll Lose Pregnancy Weight More Quickly
As a breastfeeding mother, you’ll burn somewhere between 200 and 500 more calories per day than if you were not breastfeeding (10). The exact number varies according to how often you breastfeed, how much milk you’re producing, and whether you’re exclusively breastfeeding.
To lose a pound, you have to burn 3,500 calories, so it’s possible that breastfeeding will help you lose a pound a week more than formula feeding.
Breastfeeding Hormones Make Make You More Relaxed
While you are breastfeeding, your body produces hormones to help make plenty of milk and stimulate the letdown reflex when you are feeding. A by-product of these hormonal shenanigans is that you are likely to feel more relaxed and less stressed in general.
Of course, breastfeeding will not make up for other stresses in your life. You won’t always become magically relaxed when you breastfeed — it can just help you feel better about things.
You May Lower Your Risk of PPD
Some studies have shown a link between whether or not you breastfeed, and for how long, with your risk of developing postpartum depression. They showed that women who exclusively breastfed for six months or more were less likely to suffer from PPD.
However, it’s not clear which factor led to which. Were women with postpartum depression more likely to give up breastfeeding or did breastfeeding offer some protection against PPD?
Your Periods Will Take Longer to Return
The body of a breastfeeding woman produces the hormone prolactin, which is needed for milk production. Prolactin also suppresses ovulation, and so many women who are exclusively breastfeeding do not have periods.
When your baby has formula or begins solids, your prolactin levels drop, and your periods will start again.
You’ll Get Some Birth-Control Protection
While you’re exclusively breastfeeding and your body’s producing prolactin, you are unlikely to ovulate. As a result, breastfeeding provides limited birth control.
However, if you don’t want another baby or don’t want one too soon, it’s essential to use other contraception — even if you are exclusively breastfeeding. That’s because you will begin ovulating and can become pregnant two weeks before your period returns.
And I know this from personal experience. While exclusively breastfeeding our fourth child, I became pregnant with our fifth!
Breastfeeding Is One Less Chore
I was unable to breastfeed two of our babies, and the one thing I disliked about this was the work involved with formula feeding.
You have to wash bottles, sterilize them, and make new formula, ensuring you have enough ready to get you through the night or through the day.
On the other hand, with breastfeeding, apart from when you are expressing and bottle feeding, there’s hardly anything to do. So one less chore — yeah!
Breastfeeding Saves Money
For formula feeding, you’ll have to buy baby bottles, a way to sterilize your bottles, and a steady supply of formula. So not only do you have to pay out upfront, but you also have the ongoing costs to consider.
Breastfeeding Reduces Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Women who breastfeed their babies for six months are 25% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes in later life when compared to women who have never breastfed (11).
Also worth pointing out is that having gestational diabetes increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. However, women who had had gestational diabetes and went on to breastfeed for six months or more halved their risk of developing diabetes later in life.
You Are Less Likely to Develop Osteoporosis
Babies need plenty of calcium to build their bones. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding and not getting enough calcium, your baby will draw what it needs from your bones. As a result, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers may experience a degree of osteoporosis.
The flip side of this is that the process by which your body re-calcifies your bones is thought to make them stronger. In turn, this reduces your chances of developing osteoporosis later in life.
You’re Less Likely to Develop Breast Cancer
A study of 15,000 women showed that women were less likely to develop cancer if they breastfed. For every year of breastfeeding, you are 4.3% less likely to develop breast cancer (12).
Most importantly, the effect lasts for a lifetime, not just while you are breastfeeding.
Reduced Risk of Ovarian Cancer
Even better than your decreased chance of developing breast cancer is the reduction in your risk of developing ovarian cancer. When you exclusively breastfeed for six months, you reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer by up to 30% (13).
This is especially significant because ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it is relatively advanced.
FAQs About Breastfeeding
These are the questions we get most often asked about breastfeeding.
How Long Do the Benefits of Breastfeeding Last?
The majority of the benefits of breastfeeding last for a lifetime. The shorter-term benefits tend to be things like a faster-contracting uterus and the laxative effect of breastmilk.
At What Age Is Breastfeeding No Longer Beneficial?
Even a few weeks of breastfeeding is helpful for some benefits, but it’s best to try and feed exclusively for six months if you can. Beyond six months, it is still best for your baby, but there will not be a significant health benefit feeding past that time.
That’s not to say you have to stop at six months or any other time. As long as you and your baby are both happy, you should breastfeed for as long as you want.
Are There Any Negative Effects of Breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding can be challenging to begin with. You may experience cracked or sore nipples, engorged breasts, and even mastitis. All of this happens when you are exhausted,on-call, and emotionally overwhelmed.
You might also find you get less rest because you are the one on-call to feed your baby. As a result, breastfeeding can send your stress levels through the roof at the beginning.
Do Your Breast
There’s no denying it, breastfeeding has multiple benefits for you, your baby, and even the rest of your family if you consider the financial factor.
However, if you chose to formula feed, or find you have to for some reason, don’t worry. Your baby will still benefit from the loving, closeness you’ll develop and from having a happier, less stressed mom.