Benefits of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding provides a number of benefits for infants. Breast milk contains the proper amounts of important nutrients (e.g., fat, protein, sugar) and provides complete nutrition for healthy growth and development. Most infants do not need any food other than breast milk for the first 6 months of life. After the age of 6 months, solid foods and other liquids may be introduced in addition to breast milk. For many infants, breast milk is easier to digest than formula.

According to the World Health Organization, new mothers should breastfeed within the first hour after giving birth. Colostrum, which is a fluid produced at the end of pregnancy and for 2–3 days after childbirth—prior to true lactation, contains a number of beneficial substances, including protein, calories, and antibodies. Antibodies, which also are present in breast milk, help to protect infants from viral and bacterial infections.

Studies show that breastfeeding may reduce the risk for ear infections, upper respiratory infections, and gastrointestinal disorders (e.g., diarrhea, constipation) in babies and toddlers. Breastfeeding also may reduce the risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Research has shown that infants who are breastfed may have lower rates of certain medical conditions, including diabetes, obesity/overweight, asthma, high cholesterol (hypercholesteremia), and some types of cancer (e.g., leukemia, lymphoma) later in life, but more studies are needed. Some research indicates that infants who are breastfed score slightly higher on IQ (intelligence quotient) tests than babies who are not.

Breastfeeding also provides a number of benefits for new mothers. Nursing stimulates the production of hormones that cause the uterus (womb) to contract and return to its pre-pregnancy size and shape faster. These hormones also help to reduce vaginal bleeding after childbirth (lochia).

Because breastfeeding requires additional calories, nursing mothers often lose pregnancy weight more quickly than women who do not breastfeed. Nursing also may delay ovulation and menstruation following pregnancy; however, breastfeeding is not a reliable method of birth control.

Nursing may provide extended health benefits for women later in life. These benefits include lower rates of certain types of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis (reduced bone density). According to a recent study, breastfeeding for at least 1 year may reduce a woman's risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis.

In addition to health benefits, breastfeeding also saves money, time, and energy. Nursing does not require formula or bottles, which need to be purchased, prepared, and heated. Breast milk is always available, always sterile, and always the proper temperature.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 06 Nov 2015