The 7 Biggest Benefits of Breastfeeding, According to Experts

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There’s a lot of lore surrounding the benefits of breastfeeding. For instance, my mom likes to tell my brother and me that her decision to nurse us is one of the reasons why we’re so smart (at least in her mind – love you, mom). While she’s right that breastfeeding is connected with higher IQ scores, per Frontiers in Nutrition, the reality is that researchers have never been able to definitively say whether that’s thanks to the breast milk itself.

“Was it actually the breast milk that mom provided? Or was it that this mom had all of these other supports in place to breastfeed – things that play a role in terms of the baby’s development cognitively?” asks Jessica Madden, MD, a pediatrician and neonatologist. “They’ve never really teased out the other factors involved.”

Yet despite the speculation, we do know this: there are definitely some major benefits of breastfeeding both for the baby and the parent who nurses them. This is why experts find it encouraging to see that the latest available CDC data show more and more parents are deciding to breastfeed.

If you’re on the fence about whether or not breastfeeding is right for your family, it can help to know about the biggest benefits of breastfeeding that have solid proof behind them – plus some of the reasons why parents might opt for formula instead.

Experts Featured in This Article

Jessica Madden, MD, is a pediatrician, neonatologist, and medical director at Aeroflow Breastpumps.

Cheryl Lebedevitch is the national policy director of the US Breastfeeding Committee.

Benefits For the Baby

The nutrients are individually tailored to what your baby needs.

When all goes well, breastfeeding is like having a meal plan perfectly crafted by an expert dietitian. Breast milk has the exact nutrients a baby needs at any given time. Early breast milk begins as colostrum, which is not only designed specifically for newborns’ digestive systems, it’s so packed with vitamins and antioxidants that it’s known as “liquid gold.” As it transitions into mature milk, the fat composition changes to meet the needs of the growing baby, per The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

But that’s not all. “There’s different biochemical substances in milk for a male newborn versus a female newborn,” Dr. Madden says. Depending on the time of day the milk is expressed, there’s a different hormone balance. “Breast milk that’s made overnight is going to be more likely to help the baby to sleep,” she says.

It boosts immunity.

One of the most well-established benefits of breastfeeding is the effect on a baby’s immune system. There’s a solid amount of data, published in Pediatrics and Maternal and Child Health, to name a few medical journals, showing that it decreases the risk of infections in the baby’s first couple of years.

Cheryl Lebedevitch, national policy director of the United States Breastfeeding Committee, compares colostrum in particular to a baby’s first round of immunizations. She says it provides “so many of those protections they need because they don’t have mature immune systems just yet.”

Even as it matures, breast milk passes along some of the antibodies that the parent’s body is making, per findings in the The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, helping protect the baby against the particular viruses they’re both exposed to. It also promotes healthy bacteria in the infant’s gut, which boosts their immune system as well.

“Babies who are predominantly breastfed, they’re going to have less stomach gastroenteritis, stomach flus, less ear infections, less infections overall,” Dr. Madden says. This continues to be true until around their second birthday, even if the baby stops breastfeeding before then.

Benefits For the Breastfeeding Parent

The hormones released can help you bond.

Screaming, crying creatures that wake you up multiple times a night can be tough to live with. But breastfeeding can make the experience feel a little more manageable. Lebedevitch points out that when you’re lactating, the body releases oxytocin to trigger the milk to flow. This chemical is most well-known as the “love hormone” because it promotes bonding.

What’s more, it also helps downregulate our stress response. (Dr. Maddens flags that emerging research, like in the Journal of Affective Disorders, for example, suggests breastfeeding might even help prevent postpartum depression, but more data is needed to know definitively).

It supports recovery from childbirth.

That oxytocin doesn’t just affect us mentally. It also helps the uterus contract, bringing it back to its normal size more rapidly. “You hear women talk about when they’re feeding their baby, they get afterbirth pains,” Dr. Madden says. “That’s a good thing that’s going to help you recover. That’s your uterus shrinking back to normal size and the blood vessels constricting there.”

You’ll have a lower risk of breast cancer.

It’s not only the child who gets protected from disease when you nurse them. Research in The Lancet shows that parents who breastfeed have a significantly decreased risk of developing breast cancer either before or after menopause. And the longer you breastfeed over the course of your life, the more protected you are.

Practical Benefits of Breastfeeding

Nighttime feedings are simpler.

In those early months when a newborn needs to eat in the middle of the night, anything you can do to streamline the process means more ZZZs for you. Dr. Madden points out that simply rolling over, picking baby up out of the bassinet, and offering your breast is far more efficient than heading to the kitchen to prepare and warm up a bottle and then sanitize it afterwards.

It can be used to calm a baby down.

When little ones are frantically crying, many parents find that breastfeeding is often the most effective way to soothe them. And it’s not just because they were hungry – babies get an oxytocin boost, too. Dr. Madden says that when we measure babies’ vital signs while they’re breastfeeding, all snuggled against their parents chest, we can see that their heart rates and breathing rates calm down.

Challenges to Keep in Mind

The truth is, breastfeeding doesn’t always come easily. Babies sometimes have a hard time latching, and postpartum bodies sometimes struggle to produce milk. Ducts can get plugged and nipples can bleed. Any of these complications can take a major toll on a parent’s mental health.

Even if the milk flows perfectly, finding the time and space to nurse can be challenging (especially if you go back to work). And while people might call breastfeeding “free,” Dr. Madden points out that it can actually add up to hundreds of hours of unpaid labor. “Is it really free in the sense that you’re giving up so many other parts of your life to feed your baby?” she asks.

Despite the many benefits of breastfeeding, there are good reasons why some parents choose to formula feed. And that’s okay! Dr. Madden says that, not only is infant formula not harmful, there’s nothing wrong with doing a mix of formula and breast milk, either. “Even if your baby gets one breastfeed per day, like a couple of ounces, when we look at those benefits from the immune system standpoint, those are still there,” Dr. Madden says. “It’s not all or nothing.”

Related: We Asked a Celebrity Doula Our Pressing Pregnancy Questions

Jennifer Heimlich is a writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in fitness and wellness journalism. She previously worked as the senior fitness editor for Well+Good and the editor in chief of Dance Magazine. A UESCA-certified running coach, she’s written about running and fitness for publications like Shape, GQ, Runner’s World, and The Atlantic.

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