Breastfeeding Basics

Image taken by Igor Balasonov, courtesy of Getty Images

Breastfeeding and breast milk are essential to a baby’s health; in fact, countless studies have shown that breast milk is the healthiest form of milk and an important source of nutrition for newborns. Breastfeeding has been shown to help prevent disease and diarrhea among infants, as it has provides the right balance of nutrient content for a baby’s development, which includes fat, sugar, water and protein. However, the quality of a mother’s breast milk can vary, depending on the mother’s diet. Smoking, alcohol, caffeine and other drugs also often compromise the quality of breast milk.

Long-term benefits of breastfeeding include protecting infants against respiratory health problems such as asthma and allergies. Some studies also suggest that breastfeeding during infancy lowers the risk of breast cancer, as well as decreasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Scientific Research

Numerous studies show that breastfeeding is beneficial to both infants and mothers. For example, the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have shown through past research that breastfeeding provides significant health and development advantages. At the same time, it can also decrease the risk of many acute and chronic diseases. This includes dangerous respiratory and urinary tract infections, as well as other types of digestive and ear infections commonly affecting babies worldwide. Breast milk may also helps protect babies from lymphoma, allergic and digestive diseases and sudden infant death syndrome. The act of breastfeeding is also healthy for mothers, as it burns an average of 500 calories a day and helps them lose the weight gained during pregnancy.

Some studies also suggest connections between intelligence and breastfeeding, although no definitive scientific proof has been found. A 2007 report by the World Health Organization suggests that breastfeeding improves and increases cognitive development during childhood, as it helps to increase the child’s bonding mechanisms, which contributes to intellectual development. Other studies seem to confirm WHO’s study, such as those conducted by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and individual researchers.

Other relevant studies connecting breast milk and  infants’ health include:

  • A 1993 University of Texas study that showed that longer periods of breastfeeding are associated with shorter durations of ear infections during the first two years of a child’s life.
  • A 1995 case study of 87 newborns that found that breastfed babies were significantly less likely to experience diarrheal illness (by 50 percent).
  • A 2004 case study showing that breastfeeding reduced infants’ risk of acquiring urinary tract infections.

The First Six Months

National and international health organizations such as the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics highly recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. This is a critical time in a baby’s life, as they are continuing to experience rapid cognitive and developmental growth. Breast milk also provides all the fluids and additional food a baby needs before solid foods are introduced; roughly a six month period. Most pediatricians agree that mothers should breastfeed for up to a year and continue for as long as it is mutually desired by the mother and the baby. Mothers should talk to their private physicians and/or pediatricians in order to determine the right amount of time for them.

Ongoing Improvements in Breastfeeding

Although breastfeeding is a natural act that defines the first stages of postnatal motherhood, there are also ways that mothers can better prepare for breastfeeding. There are several classic books on breastfeeding you can refer to, as well as hospitals, medical offices, and nutrition centers which offer mothers-to-be breastfeeding classes. The American Academy of Pediatrics also offers mothers helpful advice through a worksheet on breastfeeding success. Some mothers also form breastfeeding support groups with friends and local mothers, giving new mothers a forum to share advice and breastfeeding experiences.

Additional Resources

For new mothers-to-be or new mothers who want to further research breastfeeding and its benefits, the following is a list of authoritative and useful links that provide important information on breastfeeding.

  • American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP): The AAP’s “breastfeeding initiatives”  section provides mothers with valuable information on breastfeeding advice.
  • Breastfeeding.com: Breastfeeding.com provides links to research articles on breastfeeding and a nursing “how to” video, as well as other relevant material.
  • Parents.com: Parents.com provides information on breastfeeding, including benefits and breastfeeding myths.

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