The Many Benefits of Breastfeeding

For years, new moms have been encouraged to breastfeed, because of the benefits it can provide to both mother and baby. Dr. Kamilah Dixon-Shambley, a physician in obstetrics and gynecology at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, says that while a decision to breastfeed is a personal one, “I think every mom should consider it given the benefit for the mom and the baby.”

That’s because breastmilk “is the perfect nutrient source for infants,” notes Danielle Burns, a health and lactation educator with CalOptima Bright Steps in Orange, California. “It’s easily digested and contains the antibodies and enzymes needed to keep baby healthy. Breastfeeding also strengthens the bond between baby and mom.”

“Breastfeeding is the clinical golden standard for infant health and well-being,” says Annette Leary, a maternal educator with the Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Florida. That’s because it provides “all the proper nutrition, antibodies and caloric needs for a growing baby.”

[READ: Checklist for Choosing a Maternity Hospital.]

Breastfeeding Benefits for Baby

Breastfeeding confers specific benefits to both mother and baby. The first of these is protection against illness. Protective antibodies pass from mother to baby via breastmilk, “which can help protect the infant from various illnesses,” Dixon-Shambley says.

This means that breastfed infants have lower risk of:

Ear infections.

Diarrheal diseases.

Asthma.

Obesity.

Type 1 diabetes.

— Sudden infant death syndrome.

During pregnancy, your body is preparing itself to lactate. The milk that arrives first, called colostrum is a “natural superfood,” Burns says. It lasts for about two to five days after you deliver your baby, and it helps the baby pass the meconium, its first bowel movement. “It can also prevent jaundice in newborns and provides a jump start for healthy growth and development.”

Breastfeeding Benefits for Mom

While your baby benefits greatly from breastfeeding, it also has great benefits for the lactating parent. “The health benefits to the breastfeeding parent are too numerous to list,” Leary says, and they begin immediately after birth. “Breastfeeding hormones cause the uterus to contract, aiding to prevent a postpartum hemorrhage.”

Breastfeeding can also help you get back to your pre-baby weight faster; it takes a lot of energy to create the milk your baby needs, and breastfeeding alone burns about 500 calories per day, Leary says.

What’s more, Burns notes that “breastfeeding moms tend to recover from childbirth more quickly than mothers who do not breastfeed.”

It can make you just plain feel better, too. “The hormones produced during lactation promote a mental state of well-being, enhancing the bonding experience, as well as contributing to lactational amenorrhea (lack of menstruation), which assists in child spacing,” Leary says. This rebalancing of hormones can help prevent the development of postpartum depression and anxiety. It also creates an increased production of oxytocin and prolactin hormones that can help control stress.

Other lifelong benefits of lactation include:

— Increased basal metabolic rates, which can reduce risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and help prevent obesity.

— Reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

— Improved bone health.

— Reduced risk of high blood pressure.

Burns also notes that there’s a financial reason to consider breastfeeding, as it “saves time and money. It’s always ready no matter where you are and it’s free.”

It’s rare that a woman is told not to breastfeed, but people with certain conditions, such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, cancer and those who are taking certain medications such as antiretrovirals or are undergoing chemotherapy should not breastfeed. Mothers who use substances like cocaine, PCP or excessive amounts of alcohol also shouldn’t breastfeed. Talk with your doctor or a lactation specialist for advice about your specific situation.

“I recommend the expectant parent self-educate, talk to their partner and health care provider to make the best-informed decision,” Leary says.

[Read: Everything You Need to Know About Prenatal Vitamins.]

How Long to Breastfeed

“Breastmilk is the only food source a baby needs from birth to six months of age,” Burns says. At that point, you can start introducing solid foods in addition to continuing to breastfeed, which she says you can continue as long as you’d like.

Leary agrees that you should breastfeed for as long as you’re comfortable doing so, and adds that the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend breastfeeding exclusively for six months, followed by an introduction of complementary foods while continuing to breastfeed for a minimum of one to two years.

Dixon-Shambley also says a year is a great timeline to shoot for, and if you decide to go longer, that’s “absolutely fine. Even if you find that you have to supplement with formula, there are still benefits to breastfeeding. I always joke with my patients that every drop counts.”

Lastly, Leary notes that even though breastfeeding is the natural option, it’s still “a learned art that for some does not come easy. Babies are time-intensive, and it takes a lot of patience to learn their needs and how to feed. Learn as much as you can during pregnancy, identify your support team prenatally and get help early.”

Dixon-Shambley notes that it sometimes also takes a little while for your milk to come in and for you to figure out how best to help your baby latch on, “but stick with it.” She says there are plenty of providers who can help you get the hang of it, so don’t be shy — ask for help. Most hospitals have a lactation specialist or health educator on staff who’s available to assist.

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The Many Benefits of Breastfeeding originally appeared on usnews.com

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