Human milk is so much more than “just food” for infants – it also provides long-lasting health benefits for both Mom and Baby. Breast milk is packed full of active ingredients like antibodies and antibacterial cells and is tailor-made to promote babies’ wellbeing. And the benefits don’t stop there: breastfeeding can help mothers recover after birth and even offer long-term protection against certain cancers and chronic diseases.
Health scientists and the medical community agree that breast milk has powerful benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) describes breastfeeding as a “public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice.” AAP and the World Health Organization both recommend that all infants exclusively breastfeed through age six months. The AAP, National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN), and other experts also recommend human milk as the best nutrition for preterm infants.
Ever wonder exactly how breast milk improves health? Read on to explore the medical benefits of breastfeeding for both babies and mothers, plus get tips for when and how to seek breastfeeding support.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Baby
Babies who receive breast milk gain a wide variety of health advantages. These begin immediately after birth and can even extend through childhood.
Short-Term Benefits: Protection Against Infection
Breastfed babies have a lower risk of getting sick with:
- Ear infections
- Respiratory infections (upper and lower)
- Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV) bronchiolitis
Breastfeeding and infant health have a dose-response relationship. In other words, the longer a baby receives human milk, the more immune protection he or she receives against the conditions listed above.
How is breast milk able to protect against illness? Milk is a bioactive substance containing a laundry list of compounds that fight bacteria and viruses and other ingredients that help mature and protect a baby’s gastrointestinal tract. Human milk also serves as an “extrauterine connection” between mother and baby, transmitting Mom’s antibodies to strengthen her little one’s immune system.
Long-Term Benefits: Fewer Lifelong Illnesses
Even years after a child weans, she or he can experience the benefits of breastfeeding. Children who were breastfed have lower rates of:
- Allergic diseases (like asthma, eczema, and atopic dermatitis)
- Celiac disease
- Leukemia and lymphoma
For children born at term, there may even be benefits of breastfeeding for child development. Some studies have found that children who were breastfed perform better on intelligence tests and receive higher teachers’ ratings; however, these results might be confounded by a child’s socioeconomic status, parental education, and home environment, so more research is needed. (For children born preterm, the research about neurodevelopment is more clear – see below!)
How Breastfeeding Helps Preterm and Hospitalized Babies
Breastfeeding might look different for NICU families, but it offers just as many (if not even more!) health benefits. Human milk is particularly important for preterm infants, given their immature gastrointestinal and immune systems.
Human milk has been proven to prevent NEC and sepsis in premature patients and stimulate gut maturity. It also promotes neurodevelopment: infants who mainly received human milk during their NICU stay performed better on mental, motor, and behavioral tests as toddlers regardless of their home environment or socioeconomic status.
Mom’s own milk is ideal for preterm babies because it is calibrated to gestational age: specifically, it’s higher in protein and other bioactive substances to help meet preemies’ specific needs.
Donor human milk is the recommended next-best choice for feeding preterm babies when mom’s own milk is unavailable. Milk banks receive and distribute millions of ounces of donor milk per year to help NICU babies thrive.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom
Part of the answer to “why is it important to breastfeed?” is that it also influences mothers’ health. Just like babies, moms receive both immediate and long-term benefits from breastfeeding.
Right after birth, breastfeeding can reduce postpartum blood loss and help the uterus contract to its normal size. Some studies have found that breastfeeding may protect mothers against postpartum depression, though more research is needed for scientists to understand how this happens.
Later in life, women who breastfed for at least 12 months are less likely to develop the following conditions:
- breast and ovarian cancer
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- cardiovascular disease
- rheumatoid arthritis
It’s safe to say breastfeeding is not “just for babies” – the lifelong benefits of breastfeeding extend to mothers, as well.
How to Get Breastfeeding Help
While breastfeeding is technically a “natural” behavior for humans because we are mammals, the process can feel anything but natural for many moms. It’s no secret that breastfeeding can come with a wide array of challenges: low milk supply, painful latch, plugged ducts, and mastitis are just a few hurdles. Modern moms have to juggle breastfeeding and/or pumping with their other responsibilities, like work schedules and childcare.
Adding medical complications into the mix can make breastfeeding even more challenging. Mothers with medically complicated births can experience delayed milk production. Infants hospitalized due to prematurity or illness are often unable to feed at the breast (or take any feeds by mouth), requiring Mom to pump exclusively. The stress and physical separation that a NICU stay involves can create further lactation difficulties.
Fortunately, help is out there. It’s essential for parents to 1) recognize that it’s normal to need support with breastfeeding and 2) know who to call on for help.
At the Hospital
Hospitals can offer a wealth of experienced resources to help parents get started with breastfeeding. Lactation consultants (IBCLCs) and nurses in the postpartum units are trained to help moms and new babies get started with breastfeeding – don’t be shy to ask for guidance and let your care team know what your feeding goals are.
If your baby is in the NICU, you’ll also have access to lactation experts who can guide you. It’s important for NICU parents to learn best practices for pumping so they can make plenty of milk, even when they’re separated from their baby. NICU dyads may also have a gradual transition to feeding at the breast, in which the baby learns step-by-step over time how to nurse, with plenty of practice.
When Baby Comes Home
For both term and preterm babies, many breastfeeding issues arise once families are home from the hospital and discovering their routines – or lack thereof. If you’re experiencing pain, difficulty latching, low supply, or simply questioning, “Is this normal?” Getting one-on-one help from a lactation consultant is highly recommended. Your pediatrician, maternity hospital, or health insurance company can recommend a lactation expert to contact. You can also find an IBCLC near you using this tool.
Groups can also be a meaningful way to find information and emotional support. La Leche League is a nationwide platform for connecting with other breastfeeding families. Social media forums can be helpful, too. Just remember that these posts typically share personal experiences and can offer much-needed support. They are not intended to replace the medical advice of your provider(s).
The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program offers free lactation support for income-eligible families. WIC offices typically provide breastfeeding education and hands-on help from trained lactation clinicians and/or breastfeeding peer counselors. You can visit WIC’s quick eligibility screening tool to learn if WIC may be an option for you or someone you know.
High-quality online lactation counseling is now more available than ever. Some platforms even offer services on demand and may be covered by your health insurance. It’s also worth checking if your local hospital provides breastfeeding consultations via phone or video, as many have added that service since COVID-19.
We hope this information is helpful and that you feel informed and supported throughout your feeding journey.