What do feel good hormones, real-time immune support, and a speedier postpartum recovery have in common? They’re just some of the benefits of breastfeeding for mom and baby, of course.
Often called liquid gold, breast milk contains immune factors, omega fatty acids, stem cells, enzymes, bonding hormones and growth hormones that have profound benefits for babies, including some that we are just beginning to understand.
Breastfeeding benefits moms in some surprising other ways, too. More on that later in this article, but first let’s dive into the benefits for wee ones.
Health Benefits of Breastfeeding For Baby
When my first baby was born, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever master the origami-style swaddle technique my midwife showed me or be able to tell the difference between a tired cry and a wet diaper cry. There was so much to figure out, but one thing was certain: her happy sighs after a nursing session gave me unspeakable joy.
In addition to a full belly, breastfeeding also gives babies:
1. Made-To-Order Immune Support
As you and your baby encounter bacteria and viruses, you make unique antibodies and pass them on via breast milk in real time. We know of two mechanisms that make this possible:
- Kissing Your Baby – “When a mother kisses her baby, she ‘samples’ those pathogens that are on the baby’s face. Those are ones that the baby is about to ingest. These samples are taken up by the mother’s secondary lymphoid organs like the tonsils, and memory B cells specific for those pathogens are re-stimulated.
These B cells then migrate to the mother’s breasts where they produce just those antibodies that the baby needs,” says Lauren Sompayrac, author of How The Immune System Works.” (1)
- Baby Backwash – According to biologist Katie Hinde, “when a baby suckles at its mother’s breast, a vacuum is created. Within that vacuum, the infant’s saliva is sucked back into the mother’s nipple, where receptors in her mammary gland read its signals. This ‘baby spit backwash,’ as she delightfully describes it, contains information about the baby’s immune status.
Everything scientists know about physiology indicates that baby spit backwash is one of the ways that breast milk adjusts its immunological composition. If the mammary gland receptors detect the presence of pathogens, they compel the mother’s body to produce antibodies to fight it, and those antibodies travel through breast milk back into the baby’s body, where they target the infection.” (2)
Breastfeeding for a full year conveys immune factors for all the seasons – cold, flu and allergy. This results in fewer illnesses and shorter duration illnesses, including:
- Ear infections – Exclusive breastfeeding for 3-4 months reduces the risk of middle ear infections by up to 50%. (3) (4)
- Respiratory illnesses – Babies breastfed exclusively for 4 months are 72% less likely to be hospitalized for a lower respiratory infection according to one study, while another found that “the probability of respiratory illness occurring at any time during childhood is significantly reduced if the child is fed exclusively breast milk for 15 weeks and no solid foods are introduced during this time.” (5) (6)
- Gut infections – Breastfeeding is associated with a decreased incidence of both necrotizing enterocolitis and gastroenteritis. (7)
- Eczema – Teens whose mothers were part of a breastfeeding intervention group when they were babies “had about a 50% reduction in the risk of flexural eczema compared with those whose mothers received standard care.” (8) Flexural refers to eczema located in the flexures of elbow, knees, wrists, etc.
- Celiac disease – “Breastfeeding during the introduction of dietary gluten, and increasing duration of breastfeeding were associated with reduced risk of developing CD [celiac disease].” (9)
- Inflammatory bowel disease – Breastfed babies are less likely to develop Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis (10)
- Cancer – Breastfed babies have a stomach pH that promotes the formation of HAMLET, which is a protein lipid complex that kills cancer cells. According to one study, “This mechanism may contribute to the protective effect of breastfeeding against childhood tumors.” (11) Another analysis found that “14% to 19% of all childhood leukemia cases may be prevented by breastfeeding for 6 months or more.” (12)
- Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) – One study concluded that “breast milk is a part of the natural defence against UTI.” (30)
Also, though the exact reason why is unknown, a recent study found that breastfeeding for at least two months cut the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) almost in half. (13)
One factor behind these benefits may be that breastfeeding is “associated with an increase in the size of the thymus, an essential organ for generation of T cell immunity and tolerance. Thymus size at four months of age in exclusively breast-fed infants was more than double the size in formula-fed infants, and this effect persisted at least until 10 months of age . Breastfeeding between eight and 10 months also correlated with increased thymus size .” (14)
The benefits don’t end when baby is six or ten months old, either. In the second year of life, some immune factors in breast milk actually increase in concentration.
Nursing toddlers between the ages of 16 and 30 months have been found to have fewer illnesses and illnesses of shorter duration than their non-nursing peers. In fact, the World Health Organization says that “a modest increase in breastfeeding rates could prevent up to 10% of all deaths of children under five: Breastfeeding plays an essential and sometimes underestimated role in the treatment and prevention of childhood illness. (15)
2. Custom nourishment based age and on time of day
Did you know there is daytime breast milk and nighttime breast milk? It’s true – in addition to providing antibodies in real time, breast milk is higher in fat in the morning, then changes in the evening to deliver sleep-inducing hormones and amino acids.
It also changes dynamically to provide optimal nutrition based on the baby’s age and needs. For example, in the early months baby’s immune system needs extra support so breast milk is loaded with extra white blood cells, then later on baby needs extra fat to support brain development so the fat content increases.
3. Supports a healthy metabolism
Breast milk contains leptin, a hormone that regulates metabolism and body weight. (16) As I wrote about in my post on leptin resistance, it was first discovered when researchers isolated a gene responsible for extreme obesity in mice – the mice weighed three times as much as a normal mouse and their appetites were described as “insatiable.”
It took four decades, but it was eventually discovered that the mutation reduced their production of leptin. When researchers administered leptin to the mice, the mice lost weight.
The increased levels of leptin found in breast fed babies may be part of the reason they have a lower risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes later in life. (16) (17) (18) There are other possible factors, too, such as the effects of breast milk on the microbiome. More on that later in this article.
4. May increase intelligence
Although we’re not exactly sure why, several studies have found that breastfeeding is linked to better cognitive function later in life. (19) One study found that teens who were breastfed as babies had more white matter in their brains, and suggested that “one or more constituents of mothers’ breast milk promote brain development at a structural level.” (20)
5. Optimizes oral and facial development
The tongue, jaw and facial muscles used to breastfeed can have a lifelong impact on the shape and function of a baby’s face and airway.
Some health experts have long suspected that breastfeeding is critical to the proper development of a baby’s jaw, dental health and airway. The late Dr. Brian Palmer was a vocal advocate for breastfeeding and spent his career linking breastfeeding to better dental health, and even to a reduction in problems with airway restriction. Evidence has shown that breastfed babies are less at risk for sudden infant death syndrome, for example, and Palmer believed that this might be due in part to the developing hard palate and airway.
Research has demonstrated this difference in jaw development based on the type of “sucking” done in infancy, and has also linked the type of sucking done in infancy to better or worse dental health later in life. In one study, for example, researchers examined more than 1,000 preschool children and found that those who had been breastfed as a baby were less likely to have problems with the alignment of their teeth or an overcrowded mouth. (21)
6. Reduces picky eating
Your breast milk tastes like licorice. Or mint. Or steak. Actually, according to one study it tastes like whatever you are eating!
That’s important because, as the article notes, babies are likely to prefer solid foods whose tastes they recognize from breast milk. Unlike formula, which tastes the same from day-to-day, breastmilk introduces babies to a variety of flavors that can help them accept a wider range of foods once they start solids.
Click here for signs baby is ready to start solids, and here for the best first foods.
7. Encourages microbiome diversity
Breast milk contains good bacteria and sugars called oligosaccharides which are indigestible to the baby, but the perfect food for beneficial bacteria.
According to one study, about “30 percent of the beneficial bacteria in a baby’s intestinal tract come directly from mother’s milk, and an additional 10 percent comes from skin on the mother’s breast.” (22) These beneficial bacteria play a lifelong role in immune system and metabolic health.
Benefits of Breastfeeding For Moms
On both a physical and emotional level, breastfeeding has some upsides for moms as well. Here are some of the most significant:
8. Releases “feel good” hormones
Through suckling and skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding triggers the release of prolactin and the “love hormone” oxytocin. Together, these hormones create a sense of connection and calm. Breastfeeding has also been found to lower the risk of postpartum depression. (23)
9. Speeds recovery after birth
Oxytocin does more than just make mamas feel good, though: it also helps speed recovery by causing the uterus to contract back to its normal size after birth.
When mother’s breastfeed the process takes about six weeks, but if not it can take up to ten. (24) Nursing also decreases the risk of postpartum hemorrhage.
10. May make us smarter, too
I’ll be the first to admit that when someone says “mom brain,” intelligence is not what I think of! I’ve taken my kids to the park without realizing they’re wearing two different shoes, put my mascara in the freezer and all sorts of embarrassing things.
That said, there is some evidence that “Pregnancy and Nursing May Make Women Smarter. Hormones released during pregnancy and nursing enrich parts of the mother’s brain involved in learning and memory, a study of animals suggests.”
Now we know why moms can find anything.
11. “Remodels” bones
Breastfeeding is associated with greater maternal bone size and strength later in life. (25) One study found that it actually “remodels” a mother’s bones:
It showed that, while lactation triggers bone loss in areas prone to fractures later in life—such as the hip, wrist, and spine—the lost bone was completely replaced with fresh, new bone within two years of delivery. This bone-loss/recovery cycle, known as remodeling, provides a breastfeeding mother’s body a unique opportunity to repair tiny flaws, or microfractures, when the replacement bone is built. Microfractures are thought to contribute to osteoporosis fractures later in life. (26)
12. Earlier return to pre-baby weight
Breastfeeding allows mama to burn about 450-500 calories per day while sitting in an armchair. (27)
13. Decreased risk of ovarian and breast cancer
One study found that breastfeeding cuts ovarian cancer risk by 91%, and it also reduces the risk of breast cancer. (28) And the longer a mama breastfeeds in her lifetime, the more her risk is reduced.
14. Other long-term benefits of breastfeeding (for mom)
Other studies have found that breastfeeding may reduce the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
Every Ounce Counts
Because of issues with tongue ties my breastfeeding journey was not always an easy one, and I know that many of you may share a similar experience. If you’re struggling, I encourage you to reach out to a lactation consultant for help. I did, and it made all the difference.
Sources for this article:
1. Sompayrac, Laura (2015) How The Immune System Works.
2. Garbes, Angela (2015) The More I Learn About Breast Milk, the More Amazed I Am.
3. Duffy, Linda C. et. al. (1997) Exclusive Breastfeeding Protects Against Bacterial Colonization and Day Care Exposure to Otitis Media.
4. Lincoln Pediatric Group. Benefits of Breastfeeding and Risk Factors for Difficulties.
5. American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Policy Statement.
6. Wilson, A.C. et. al. (1998) Relation of infant diet to childhood health: seven year follow up of cohort of children in Dundee infant feeding study.
7. Perinatol, Clin (2014) Human Breast Milk and the Gastrointestinal Innate Immune System.
8. Walker, Molly (2017) Being Breastfed May Lower Eczema Risk for Teens.
9. Akobeng, A.K. et. al. (2006) Effect of breast feeding on risk of coeliac disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies.
10. Klement, E. et. al. (2004) Breastfeeding and risk of inflammatory bowel disease: a systematic review with meta-analysis.
11. Svanborg, C. et. al. (2003) HAMLET kills tumor cells by an apoptosis-like mechanism–cellular, molecular, and therapeutic aspects.
12. Amitay, EL et. al. (2015) Breastfeeding and Childhood Leukemia Incidence: A Meta-analysis and Systematic Review.
13. University of Virginia Health System. Breastfeeding for two months halves risk of SIDS: Researchers determine duration needed for protective benefit for baby.
14. Ravindran, Sandeep (2018) Relationship Between Breastfeeding and Allergies: It’s Complicated
15. Bonyata, Kelly. Breastfeeding Past Infancy: Fact Sheet
16. Uwaezuoke, Samuel N et. al. (2017) Relationship Between Exclusive Breastfeeding and Lower Risk of Childhood Obesity: A Narrative Review of Published Evidence
17. Gillman, Matthew W et. al. (2001) Risk of Overweight Among Adolescents Who Were Breastfed as Infants
18. Owen, CG et. al. (2006) Does breastfeeding influence risk of type 2 diabetes in later life? A quantitative analysis of published evidence.
19. Mortensen, EL et. al. (2002) The association between duration of breastfeeding and adult intelligence.
20. Isaacs, Elizabeth (2010) Impact of breast milk on IQ, brain size and white matter development
21. Johnson, Melinda (2014) Breastfeeding Builds a Better Jaw, and Other Benefits for Babies
22. University of California (2017) Breastfeeding’s role in ‘seeding’ infant microbiome
23. Hamden, A et. al. (2012) The relationship between postpartum depression and breastfeeding.
24. Lucia, Carol Anderson. Surprising Breastfeeding Benefits
25. Wiklund, PK et. al. (2012) Lactation is associated with greater maternal bone size and bone strength later in life.
26. Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine. Breastfeeding “Remodels” Mom’s Bones
27. National Institutes of Health. When breastfeeding, how many calories should moms and babies consume?
28. Brice, Makini (2013) Breastfeeding May Cut Mothers’ Risk of Ovarian Cancer by up to 91 Percent
29. Kelly Mom: The Many Benefits of Breastfeeding
30. Marild, S. et. al. (2004) Protective effect of breastfeeding against urinary tract infection