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The Benefits of Breastmilk

Breastmilk is the best food for your baby. It has just the right amount of nutrients. It also protects your baby's digestive system and other body systems, and helps them develop.  

Mother breastfeeding infant.

Healthiest for baby

Breastmilk is the ideal food for babies. It has all the nutrients your baby needs to grow healthy and strong. Here are some of the many benefits for your baby:

  • Breastfeeding gives contact that your baby loves. Spending time skin-to-skin with you is calming and comforting.

  • Breastmilk lowers the risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

  • Babies who are solely breastfed have a lower risk for ear infections in their first year than formula-fed babies.

  • Breastmilk has DHA. This is a fat that helps your baby’s developing brain, nervous system, and eyes. 

  • Breastmilk is full of antibodies. These help your baby fight infection.

  • Breastmilk lowers your baby's risk for respiratory illnesses, ear infections, and diarrhea.

  • Breastfeeding lowers your baby’s risk for allergies, colds, and many other diseases. Formula-fed babies are more likely to have an allergy to cow's milk.

  • Breastmilk changes as your baby grows. This meets your baby's changing needs.

  • Breastfeeding all of the time for the first 6 months gives your baby more of these benefits.

  • Breastfeeding plus solid food from 6 months to 1 year or more gives more benefits.

  • Breastfed babies have fewer long-term health problems when they grow up. These problems include diabetes and obesity.

Healthiest for mom

For many women, breastfeeding is an amazing experience. It creates a strong bond between mother and baby. Women who breastfeed also get health benefits. Other benefits for you include:

  • You can feel good knowing that your baby is growing healthy and strong because of your milk.

  • Breastmilk is convenient. It's free, clean, and always at the right temperature.

  • Breastfeeding burns calories. This can help you lose pregnancy weight faster.

  • Breastfeeding releases hormones that contract the uterus. This helps the uterus return to its normal size after childbirth.

  • Mothers who breastfeed have a decreased risk for ovarian and breast cancers.

  • Some studies have found that breastfeeding may reduce a woman's risk for type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

  • Exclusive breastfeeding delays the return of the mother’s menstrual period. This can help extend the time between pregnancies.

Many people can help you learn to breastfeed. A lactation consultant is a healthcare provider specially trained to help moms breastfeed. Your nurse, midwife, nurse practitioner, obstetrician, pediatrician, or family practice doctor can also help you learn about breastfeeding.

What does breastfeeding all of the time mean?

Breastfeeding all of the time (exclusively) for at least the first 6 months of life is best for your baby. This means your baby should get only breastmilk. Feeding your baby from your breasts is ideal. If you must be away from your baby, you can express breastmilk. Talk with your healthcare provider about the best ways to feed expressed milk to your infant. 

You should not give your baby water, sugar water, formula, or solids during his or her first 6 months unless your baby's healthcare provider tells you to.

Your baby’s provider may also tell you to give your baby vitamins, minerals, or medicines. Breastfed babies should be given vitamin D supplements. Your baby's provider will tell you about the type and amount of vitamin D you should give your baby.

What are the risks of not breastfeeding all of the time?

You know about many of the benefits of breastfeeding. But you might not know why it's important to breastfeed solely for at least 6 months.

Your baby gets the best protection against health problems when he or she gets only breastmilk. Breastfeeding some of the time is good. But breastfeeding all of the time is best.

Giving your baby formula or other liquids may cause you to:

  • Have more problems breastfeeding

  • Make less milk

  • Be less confident in breastfeeding

  • Breastfeed less often

  • Stop breastfeeding before your baby is at least 12 months old                                                   

Who should not breastfeed all of the time?

Breastfeeding without supplementing is almost always the best thing to do. But your healthcare provider may have reasons to recommend giving your baby formula or other liquids. They include:

  • Your baby has certain health problems. There are cases where you may need to add formula or other liquids, often only for a short time. This may be the case if your baby has low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), loses body fluids (dehydration), or has high levels of bilirubin.

  • You have certain health problems. Some infections can be passed from your skin to your baby's skin or through your breastmilk. So women with HIV/AIDS or untreated and contagious TB (tuberculosis) should not breastfeed. Women with active skin sores from chickenpox (varicella) can pump their breastmilk and feed their baby. But they should keep their baby’s skin from touching any of the sores.

  • You use illegal drugs or drink alcohol. Women who use illegal drugs should not breastfeed. If you are going to have beverage that contains alcohol, it's best to do so just after you nurse or pump milk instead of before. Breastfeeding or pumping breast milk is OK 4 hours after your last drink. That way, your body will have as much time as possible to rid itself of the alcohol before the next feeding and less will reach your baby. Long-term exposure to alcohol via breastmilk may affect your baby's health. It may also cause you to make less milk.

  • You take certain prescribed medicines. If you take prescribed medicine, ask your baby’s healthcare provider if you can breastfeed.

Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Heather Trevino
Online Medical Reviewer: Mary Terrell MD
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2020
© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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