All infants share the same most basic of needs. The first is the need for food. Nutrition is provided almost immediately after birth by the mother, which is taken in without question by a vulnerable infant who only knows to trust the being that carried it for so long. Infants instinctively search for a breast after being born, and although a little guidance is sometimes needed, most infants latch on to the breast right away with no problem.
Since the beginning of the human race, infants have either been nursed at the breast by their mothers or a surrogate. Commercial infant foods were not introduced until 1867, and didn’t become widely distributed or accepted until the 1920s. Since then there has been a large amount of controversy over which method of feeding is best, even though the World Health Organization recommends exclusive breast-feeding for six months and continued breast-feeding for up to two years. The age at which solid foods should be introduced is also frequently under debate. Breast-feeding alone, breast-feeding supplemented with formula, and formula alone are the options most often discussed. However the evidence is unequivocal. Exclusively breast-feeding for the first six months of a child’s life is the best option because of the immunological, developmental, and cognitive benefits for the baby, as well as benefits for the mother’s health.
Breast milk is a live blood product, and like blood, it cannot be replicated. Full of antibodies, breast milk adjusts and adapts to a babies needs during the first few months of a child’s life. The immunoglobulins present in breast milk, especially IgA, IgG, and IgM, have been proven to protect against bacterial and viral infections. Some of the most commonly seen benefits of this are protection against ear infections, diarrhea, and respiratory infections. According to a study done by Scariati PD et al, in 1997, formula fed infants had a 70 percent greater chance of getting an ear infection compared to infants who had been exclusively breastfed. The same study showed that formula fed infants had an 80 percent greater chance of getting diarrhea than their breast-feeding counterparts. A study done by Chantry CJ, Howard CR, Auinger P. looked at whether or not there was a difference in the protection against respiratory infections if a child was breastfed for four months or less, as opposed to the recommended six months; the results confirmed that the number of respiratory infections increased when the time spent breast-feeding was decreased. These are just some of the many ways that breast milk works to boost immune systems within the first few months of life.
Breast milk and the act of breast-feeding both aid in the development of an infant. Development of the mouth and intestines are two common benefits. The act of breast-feeding alone helps develop an infant’s mouth properly. While breast-feeding, an infant’s jaw muscles are exercised and massaged in a way that strengthens and shapes the hard and soft palate in order to prepare the mouth for incoming teeth. Bottle fed infants have a higher risk of restricted nose breathing, needing speech therapy, or orthodontia later in life simply because the shape of the bottle is wrong and because manufactured nipples don’t work the jaw and muscles of the face in a comparable way.
The special composition of breast milk helps protect the small intestine while it matures. Katherine Dettwyler and Patricia Stuart Macadam, authors of Breast-feeding, Bio-cultural Perspectives, confirm the presence of epidermal growth factor, nerve growth factor, somatomedin-C, insulin growth factor, insulin, thyroxine, cortisol, taurine, glutamine, and amine sugar in breast milk. These hormones, peptides, amino acids, and glycoproteins help the small intestine to mature. Breast milk also contains pancreatic secretory trypsin inhibitor (PSTI), which helps to protect an infant’s intestines while they are still maturing.
A recently discovered benefit to breast-feeding is improved cognitive function. Because babies are born with their brains only developed at 25 percent of their final size, the brain development after birth is very important. Part of what makes breast milk so beneficial to proper cognitive brain development is the large amount of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) present. DHA is a fatty acid and one of the main components of brain tissue. These fatty acids are critical for the proper development of brain cells. As a form of cholesterol DHA supports the construction of a sheath or coating on brain cells critical to the cells’ ability to relay information to other cells.
However the composition of breast milk may not be the only thing helping brain development. According to an article in Hospital Business Week Newsletter, the interaction between mother and child during breast-feeding may lead to greater cognitive development. The physical and emotional effects of mother and child interaction during breast-feeding are still relatively unexplored but could have great lasting effects on brain development especially in the area of verbal and communication skills.
The benefits of breast-feeding to mothers are tremendous. There are not only physical and emotional benefits, but financial and time benefits as well. Breast-feeding mothers should expect to see just as many positive long term affects for themselves as they will see for their infants.
Some of the first benefits seen by mothers are an increase in postpartum weight loss, decrease in postpartum bleeding and depression, and a delay in the return of fertility. Breast-feeding women often lose close to two pounds a month during the first six months without any dieting. When a women starts to breast-feed her uterus actually contracts which can slow postpartum bleeding. The release of positive hormones that a mother receives while breast-feeding can reduce the chances of getting the “Baby Blues” or postpartum depression. Mothers who exclusively breast-feed have seen a delay in the return of their period for six months, and sometimes longer.
Some of the more long term health benefits for mothers can include a decreased risk of ovarian and breast cancers. Studies have shown that a women’s risk of breast cancer falls four percent for every year that she breast-feeds. A study published in Cancer Causes and Control showed that there was a 2 percent decrease in the risk of ovarian cancer for every month a women breastfed. It is thought that the lower levels of estrogen due to breast-feeding are what causes this protection.
The emotional bonds between mother and child created by breast-feeding are another benefit that all breast-feeding mothers experience. Every time a women breast-feeds her body releases prolactin and oxytocin, hormones that help create an emotional connection and relieve emotional and physical stress after birth and during the stressful work of caring for an infant. Molly Zuehlke, who breastfed both her biological and adopted son, commented on her own bonding experiences while breast-feeding. “It was so cool to have those few moments of time, swimming in mommy hormones, to just gaze at your babe and know that your body was making the coolest, most amazing food right there.”
The skin-on-skin contact of breast-feeding is another factor in the emotional bonding between mother and child. During the first hours of an infant’s life, skin-on-skin contact between mother and child is especially important. The contact forms a strong attachment from the infant as it can soak up the sight and smell of its mother much easier. This attachment will last a lifetime and is something breast-feeding mothers deeply cherish. The contact also helps regulate an infant’s temperature, breathing, and heart rate immediately after birth and continuing through the first weeks of life.
The financial cost of using formula compared to breast-feeding is significant. Mothers who breast-feed save money by not having to buy formula or bottles. They have all the supplies for feeding their babies right on their chest. Mothers who feed formula should expect to spend approximately $40 a week on formula which adds up to $1040 in a six month period. Additional savings and health protection come from reduced water treatment and/or purchase. Water prices are rising around the world and water quality falling in many locations. As long as the mother is well hydrated during lactation, the baby will be as well, a double benefit of cost or labor savings (where water is hauled) and increased protection from water borne illnesses for the baby. Another way breast-feeding mothers save money is on medical bills. Since breast-fed babies have fewer infections there will be fewer hospital trips and less money spent on medication.
Breast-feeding mothers often find a certain convenience that comes from breast-feeding. Breast-feeding saves a lot of time by never having to mix formula, warm up formula, sanitize bottles, or run to the store for more formula. Molly Zuehlke confirms this saying “I think people still think breast-feeding is harder than bottle feeding, and it’s actually much, much easier. I never had to pack food, or worry about anything.” Night feedings can also prove to be more convenient, as a nursing mother only has to pop a nipple into a child’s mouth and can then go right back to sleep.
One of the most common reasons for women to not breast-feed, other than the lack support or information provided, is that they want other people to be able to feed their infant too. Usually this relates to the father being involved in the feedings, or wanting to be able to leave the child with another caregiver. However just because a women breast-feeds does not mean others can not partake in feeding the baby. Many mothers find it easy to pump their milk which others can then use to feed the infant.
The wonderful world of breast-feeding has provided many mothers with countless benefits to their babies and themselves. Yet according to a survey done by the CDC only 13.6 percent of infants are breast-fed exclusively for the recommended six months. The question that needs to be asked now is, why isn’t breast-feeding more common?