Think formula and breastfeeding are pretty much the same for your baby? Think again! The benefits of breastfeeding are for everyone in our society, but the breastfeeding benefits for your baby alone should convince any mom that it is at least worth a good effort to at least try it!
The many benefits are NOT exaggerated and are well-documented in studies. Even formula advertising must say that “breast is best” and mom’s are always looking for formula that is closest to breast milk. These are some of the top reasons why (with citations at the end if you want to read the studies and details.)
Top 18 Benefits of Breastfeeding for your Little One:
Perhaps you’ve heard that breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed your baby. Maybe you’ve even been told that your breast milk contains nutrients that manmade formula can’t duplicate. What you may not know is the long list of specific health benefits that your baby receives when consuming only breast milk for at least the first six months of life. If you can continue breastfeeding for at least a year, your baby will benefit even more. Interested in breastfeeding into year two? Even more health benefits await your little one.
What exactly are the top benefits of breastfeeding for babies? We dug into the research to find the facts for you.
List of 18 Benefits of Breastfeeding for Your Baby’s Health:
Human milk is best for human babies! (Cow’s milk is best for baby cows!) Your breast milk is the most natural food and most nutritious way to encourage your baby’s optimal child development. It even adjusts to your child’s needs as he grows or if he is sick to be the best possible food. It is actually quite amazing what the body can do! Formula will never be able to replicate that.
2. Breast milk proteins protect babies from food allergies.
In November 2016, new research from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital shattered the misconception that babies could develop food allergies to food substances present in their mother’s breast milk. It was once believed that breastfeeding mothers should avoid the following foods because they’re the most likely to cause sensitivities or allergies in babies and children:
- Tree nuts
This controlled study on mice found that babies received limited protection from allergies for foods their mothers consumed during pregnancy. After birth, baby mice were less likely to develop an allergy to foods if they were breastfed by mothers who continued to consume those foods.
For example, if a mouse consumed egg while pregnant, her offspring received a little protection against allergies to eggs. If that same mouse breastfed her offspring while continuing to consume eggs, her offspring were significantly less likely to develop allergies to eggs.
There’s no guarantee that you won’t have a baby who develops a food allergy, but you can protect your offspring just by eating a healthy diet with a wide range of nutrients. That includes the foods on the above list as long as you don’t have an allergy yourself and there are no signs of an allergic reaction in your baby after birth.
3. Breast milk works through the gut to boost a baby’s immune system.
Significant resources have been invested into modern resources exploring the gut microbiome in people of varying ages and backgrounds. Research has shown that breast milk naturally contains bioactive factors that boos the immune system when introduced to a baby’s gut. There is also a growing collection of research that proves breast milk helps develop the immune system to reduce a baby’s risk of illness and disease well beyond childhood.
For example, one of the most common illnesses for babies is gastroenteritis. The symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting. When other members of the household or other children surrounding a baby contract this illness, babies that aren’t breastfed and highly susceptible to contracting the illness.
The good news is that research has proven breastfed babies are four times less likely to suffer from diarrhea with gastroenteritis and the duration of the illness is often shorter than in non-breastfed babies. Breastfeeding mothers often report that their baby never shows any signs of sickness even when other members of the family have gastroenteritis. That’s just one example of what a strong immune system can do for a baby protected by breastfeeding.
Any amount of time spent at the breast can strengthen your baby’s immune system, but giving your little one at least six months of exclusive best feeding is best. In fact, a full year of breastfeeding will significantly boost your baby’s ability to protect himself against many illnesses and diseases prevalent today.
4. Breastfeeding babies may help protect their hearts.
An intensive study in 2010 published in the American Journal of Medicine indicated that breastfeed babies are better off as adults with lower risk of heart disease than their bottle-fed peers. In fact, breastfeeding in infancy is inversely associated with their adult BMI and positively associated with HDL cholesterol. Healthy babies create heart-healthy adults!
5. Breastfed babies are less likely to suffer ear infections.
There’s clear research that shows breastfed babies are less likely to suffer ear infections. That’s most likely due to the strong immune system that breast milk stimulates, leading to a lower risk of most types of infection. What many breastfeeding mothers don’t know is that feeding directly from the breast may give babies heightened protection from ear infections.
That information comes from a survey that included close to 500 mothers. The results found that babies breastfed directly at the breast for six months were 17% less likely to develop ear infections. Babies fed for just one month at the breast were 4% less likely to develop ear infections. The study also showed that babies fed pumped breast milk from a bottle were less likely to develop ear infections than formula-fed babies, but they didn’t have as much protection as babies feeding directly from the breast.
This doesn’t mean that breast milk is less nutritious or helpful to your baby when pumped and fed from a bottle. That information comes from just one survey, and more research is recommended to determine the differences in the health benefits of pumped versus directly fed breast milk. In the meantime, it’s best for all new mothers to attempt breastfeeding directly from the breast for as long as possible.
6. Breastfeeding may reduce your baby’s risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
No parent wants to think about SIDS, but it’s a reality that all caregivers should educate themselves about. One thing that you can do to limit your baby’s risk is to breastfeed for at least three to six months after birth. One study found that the risk of SIDS was cut nearly in half with just two months of breastfeeding. The researchers noted that exclusive breastfeeding isn’t essential for these benefits.
Other studies have found that protection against SIDS starts around the two-month mark and grows every month after. That makes breastfeeding for a longer period of time essential to maximize protection.
7. Exclusive breastfeeding reduces a baby’s risk of developing childhood eczema.
Whether eczema is common in your family or not, it’s worth paying attention to one of the lesser known benefits of breastfeeding. One 2019 survey that included more than 1,500 infants found that babies who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months were significantly less likely to suffer from eczema within the first six years of life.
While that’s comforting for parents, it doesn’t mean your baby is guaranteed protection against eczema if you breastfeed for at least three months. The study found that babies were more likely to suffer from this condition if there was a family history of food allergies or if their family was at or close to the poverty line. That hints that the quality of food consumed by growing babies and toddlers may have an impact on the development of eczema despite the protections offered by their mother’s breast milk.
8. Breastfeeding lowers the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) for premature and sick babies.
Necrotizing enterocolitis is a disease of the intestines that is a serious threat for premature babies born with extremely low birthweight. While it’s often more difficult to exclusively breastfeed premature babies due to feeding and developmental limitations and potential illness, research has shown that preemies who are predominantly breastfed are less likely to develop NEC.
Since NEC is a life-threatening disease that kills part of the intestines, researchers have concluded that encouraging the production of breast milk in mothers of premature babies is a lifesaving mission. It gives mothers of babies with very low birthweight more reason to boost their milk production to deliver breast milk to their babies as long as possible.
9. Breastfeeding colostrum is nature’s laxative!
10. Exclusive breastfeeding protects babies from urinary tract infection.
Research published in a 2004 issue of the journal Acta Paediatrica showed that exclusive breastfeeding lowers the risk of urinary tract infections for children at least through the age of six years old. The longer a baby is breastfed, the more protection they may have after weaning from breast milk. The study included more than 300 children up to the age of six in Sweden.
What’s important about this research is the designation of “ongoing exclusive” breastfeeding. In order to maximize benefits for your baby, you should breastfeed exclusively for as long as possible. The minimum recommendation for all babies is currently six months, and your baby may not be able to continue exclusively beyond that point since you’re likely to introduce solid foods. You can still breastfeed some through the first year or two to maximize all benefits of breastfeeding for babies.
11. Breastfed babies are often smarter than non-breastfed babies, and they earn more money.
Most new mothers aren’t dreaming into their children’s adult futures in great detail, but perhaps they should. Research has shown that breastfed babies are often much smarter than non-breastfed babies once they reach school age. New research has now added that they’re likely to earn more money than non-breastfed babies once they reach adulthood as well.
What gives breastfed babies the advantage? It comes down to better brain development, which comes from the superior nutrient value of breast milk. While scientists are working hard to create baby formulas that mimic some of the unique properties of breast milk, it still hasn’t created the perfect clone. Studies are still showing superior brain development for breastfed babies, among all the other benefits of breastfeeding listed here.
One study that followed more than 6,000 Brazilians until the age of 30 found that those who were breastfed for at least a year scored better on intelligence tests, made more money and were more successful in life on average. That’s a bit longer than the recommendation of breastfeeding for at least six months, so it gives all mothers reason to consider extending their baby’s stay at the breast.
12. Breastfeeding may reduce the need for braces and orthodontic care.
13. Breastfeeding your baby for six months or longer could reduce her chances of childhood leukemia.
Approximately 30% of all childhood cancers are diagnosed as leukemia, but one study conducted in Israel found that breastfeeding lowered a baby’s chance of developing that form of cancer by close to 20%. The study found that mothers who breastfed their babies for at least six months were less likely to have children who later were diagnosed with leukemia.
Breastfeeding for less than six months lowered a baby’s chance of developing leukemia by about 11%, so some breastfeeding is better than none when it comes to childhood cancer prevention. The research was conducted as a search through existing studies, so further research is needed to prove the idea to a scientific measure. It still gives new mothers around the world yet another reason to breastfeed their babies.
14. Breastfeeding lowers a baby’s likelihood of becoming obese in childhood.
Weight is sometimes a concern for parents during the breastfeeding months because breastfed babies often have lower bodyweights than formula-fed babies for a variety of factors. In most cases, those lower-weight breastfed babies prove to be just as healthy and happy as their plumper friends, and research is showing that breastfed babies are also less likely to grow into obese children.
The journal Pediatrics published the results of a study in 2018 that showed breastfeeding babies were more likely to have a lower body mass index and less likely to gain an excessive amount of weight in the first year of life. The longer a baby was breastfed, the more protection they had against obesity later in life. Exclusive breastfeeding was another factor that seemed to grant growing children protection against gaining too much weight as they moved toward adulthood.
15. Breastfeeding may help increase the effectiveness of vaccines and lessen adverse reactions to them.
16. Some research suggests breastfeeding can reduce a baby’s chance of developing type I diabetes.
When researchers followed more than 150,000 children up to the age of 18, they discovered one startling fact: babies who were never breastfed were twice as likely to develop type I diabetes. Among the babies who were breastfed, the reduction in risk was associated with breastfeeding of any amount of time.
It’s likely that the enhanced nutritional value and unique properties of breast milk are to credit for the reduced risk of type I diabetes for breastfed babies. The fact that any breastfeeding for any length of time may deliver the full benefits gives all parents a reason to feed directly from the breast even if it’s only for a few months.
17. Breast milk continues to nourish your baby beyond the first year.
It’s common to talk about breastfeeding babies for six months or a year. Most babies are eating solid foods by the end of the first year, and breastfeeding is less comfortable for many mothers once a baby develops teeth and is more likely to bite. Mothers who want to breastfeed beyond the first year are often at odds with other mothers in their lives, but research has shown that there are clear benefits to continue breastfeeding for another year or two.
Breast milk changes from concentrated nutrient bombs at the colostrum stage just after birth to highly nutritious, more voluminous milk thereafter. What many mothers don’t realize is that the nutrient contents of the milk change as the baby develops. A baby will receive different breast milk at one month old than they will at one year old.
When mothers continue breastfeeding, that milk continues to adjust nutrient qualities. That allows a toddler of two or three years old to receiver milk perfectly balanced to her needs as an older baby. While not all mothers will want to breastfeed beyond the first year or two for a long list of reasons, there is some research that supports mothers who choose to do so.
18. Breastfeeding is more likely to promote parent-child bonding than bottle feeding.
Breastfeeding mothers spend a lot of time in close quarters with their babies. The baby snuggles up close, perhaps enjoying some skin-to-skin time to feel safe, secure and loved. The mother can stare down at her little one and admire him. Eye contact is made, then the baby may drift off to sleep in the security and warmth that can only come from a loving mother’s arms. All of those hours are spent bonding, and the child and mother benefit from a stronger relationship as a result. A lot of trust is built through that bonding.
While bottle-feeding mothers can spend just as much time snuggled up to their babies and can mimic the skin-on-skin experience, research has shown that bonding is stronger between babies and parents when breastfeeding is chosen. Breastfeeding is soothing and calming for the baby, and it provides the perfect nutrition for every growth stage. Babies are also more likely to comfort feed when they’re breastfeeding, and they start to recognize the scent and voice of their mothers while snuggled at the breast.
Children who are NOT breastfed have an increased the risk of:
—Gastrointestinal diseases and diarrhea
—Certain respiratory infections
Nursing longer has benefits, too. Find out the benefits of extended breastfeeding here…
How to Maximize Health Benefits of Breastfeeding for Baby
After reviewing all of the research regarding breastfeeding benefits for babies, it’s clear that doing just a few things can maximize the impact for your growing baby. Whether you’re worried about specific protections related to family history or you just want to raise the healthiest baby possible, the following goals will work in your favor:
- Breastfeed exclusively for as long as possible.
- Favor direct feeding from your breast over pumping and feeding with a bottle.
- Breastfeed for at least six consecutive months.
- Consider breastfeeding for at least one year.
- Allow your baby to experience a variety of foods by consuming a varied, nutrient-rich diet while breastfeeding.
Even if you breastfeed your baby for only a few months, you will give him some of the health benefits presented here. Just keep in mind that there are also some health benefits for you, so breastfeeding six months or longer is ideal for everyone involved.
Strategies to Support Breastfeeding Around the World
With all of these benefits of breastfeeding for babies and the growing list of known benefits for mothers, why isn’t every mother in the world keeping her babies at the breast for a minimum of six months as recommended? It’s a more complicated question than it may seem on the surface, but there’s a lot we can do in the future to promote breastfeeding in populations that are currently unable or unwilling to give their babies the maximum benefit of breast milk.
According to UNICEF data, more than 820,000 childhood lives would be spared every year if more women breastfed. That data suggests that most of the lives saved would be children under the age of five, with many under the age of six months. With close to 8 million babies never receiving breast milk around the world, a lot of improvement needs to be made if we’re ever going to save even a fraction of those lives.
If you guessed that socioeconomic factors impact a baby’s chance of receiving breast milk, you’re right. Unfortunately, you can’t blame the lack of breastfeeding on poor or underprivileged babies. Statistics show that babies are most likely to be breastfed at least in the beginning of life if they’re born into poor families in an underdeveloped country or a wealthy family in a developed country.
The former group is most likely to breastfeed because the mothers can’t afford quality nutrition for their babies beyond the breast. For wealthy women in the developed world, breastfeeding is a result of education and access to more resources. Wealthy women in the developed world are also more likely to have access to quality pumping supplies, and many are able to stay home with their babies longer before returning to work. Two very different socioeconomic experiences, but the same benefits are delivered to babies.
Women in developed countries may not breastfeed for a variety of reasons, even if they are properly educated on the breastfeeding benefits for babies. For instance, working mothers are more likely to work long hours away from their babies and may not have the resources needed to pump properly while at work. Even if their employer is legally required to provide pumping breaks and a private area designated for lactating mothers, those mothers may not have access to quality pumps, ice packs, storage containers and other needed tools.
Breastfeeding awareness, breast milk storage banks and the development of higher quality pumps that can be safely passed down to mothers in need may continue to improve the odds of babies receiving breast milk at least to some extent within the first six to 12 months of life. We can all do our part by spreading the word about the many health benefits that babies receive not only from breastfeeding as infants but well into their toddler and even adult years.
* Learn the advantages of breastfeeding for employers.
* Learn how breastfeeding reduces cancer risks!
* Learn how breastfeeding saves you money!