When it comes to the choice between breast milk and formula, most professionals will highly recommend breastfeeding as your best option, often quoting that “breast is best.” But what makes breastfeeding so much better?
Here are 15 science-backed benefits, for both baby and mother, that come along with the decision to breastfeed.
1. Breastfeeding Provides the Best Source of Nutrition for Your Baby
Breast milk is a highly complex substance, constantly changing and adapting to your baby’s needs as she grows. It is chock full of vitamins and minerals, providing everything your baby needs and more. In fact, babies who are breastfed have little to no need for additional vitamin supplementation (with the exception of vitamin D, which your pediatrician may prescribe) (1). In addition to the vitamins available in human milk, the primary components present that are essential to your baby’s development are protein, fat, and lactose.
There are multiple proteins present in your milk. These are responsible for protecting your baby against infection and illness. They inhibit the growth of certain organisms that can be harmful to your baby’s gastrointestinal system. Together they work to protect against yeast growth, viral and bacterial infections, and even E. Coli and allergies, as well as promote the growth of essential, healthy bacteria.
Fats are also essential for your baby’s development. They are her primary calorie source, and they allow her body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Fats are also necessary for her to develop and have proper brain, retinal, and nervous system function. During the final trimester of pregnancy, these essential long-chain fatty acids are deposited in her brain, and continue to be produced by your breast milk to promote continued healthy development.
Lactose, the primary carbohydrate found in human milk, performs similar functions to that of protein. It promotes the growth of healthy bacteria which aids the digestive system, as well as reduces the number of unhealthy bacteria. This allows for absorption of many essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium (2).
2. Breastfeeding Regulates the Digestive System
The components of breast milk are also great for your baby’s digestive health. The protein in human milk is more easily digested than the protein found in baby formula, which is typically made from cow or goat milk, or soy. Human milk protein forms smaller curds in the baby’s stomach, which makes it much easier to digest. This means that breastfed babies are less likely to have issues with gas, constipation, or diarrhea (3).
The ease of breast milk digestion also means that it is digested very quickly. Breast milk is typically digested within an hour and a half, while formula may take up to 4 hours (4). This does mean that your baby will be hungry more often than a formula-fed baby, but the trade-off is worth the nutrition your baby receives from breast milk, as well as her happy tummy.
3. Breastfeeding Boosts Your Baby’s Immune System
Just because you are a super mom now, that does not mean that you will never get a cold. On the contrary, you are more susceptible as you are likely to be more run down and sleeping less. You may fear that your baby will also get sick, and every mother dreads their baby’s first bout of illness. The good news is that if you are breastfeeding, your baby’s immune system will be in better shape than a formula-fed baby.
The antibodies your body produces to fight your virus or infection are passed through your breast milk to your baby. She may be exposed to the germs produced by your cold, but those antibodies will begin to work quickly, either helping her to get over the cold quickly or even avoid it altogether. It has been found through various studies that babies who were breastfed for at least four months are less likely to be hospitalized with a respiratory infection. Breast milk even helps babies and children avoid catching colds from germs that are found in abundance at daycare centers (5).
Breast milk also provides many other components that, in conjunction with the antibodies produced, help your baby develop a healthy immune system. Human milk also provides a special category of sugars, called oligosaccharides, containing over 90 types forming over 900 different chemical structures. Each of these has the ability to keep “bad” bacteria from sticking to the wall of the gut (which is where 80% of the immune system is located), preventing various illnesses, including those that you have not been exposed to before (6).
4. Breastfeeding Inhibits the Development of Allergies and Asthma
A study in 2007 utilized a group of 1500 infants, about 60% of which were exclusively breastfed. It was found that conditions such as allergic rhinitis, eczema, wheezing, and asthma were less frequent among children who were breastfed for a prolonged period of time, ideally over 6 months (7).
Because of breast milk’s immunity boosting powers, it can also be effective at reducing the risk of allergies and asthma in children. Since asthma is often the result of multiple viruses that result in lung infections, a strong immune system can help to avoid this (8).
Due to formula’s content of common allergens (such as dairy and soy), there is also the risk of your baby developing a milk allergy. These babies are also susceptible to developing eczema and wheezing, also the precise reasoning is unknown. Breast milk is preferred when attempting to avoid the development of common allergies due to its lack of common allergens (9).
5. Breastfeeding Deters Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity has become an epidemic in the United States, on the rise since the 1960’s. It is estimated that about 10% of children between the ages of two to five are obese, and the number only increases with age. While lifestyle changes can help this umber to decrease, it is an unfortunate fact that the older an overweight child gets, the more likely they are to be obese as an adult (10).
Infancy is a crucial period for your child, as data shows that both protein intake and weight gain in earlier years contributes to the development of obesity later in life. Breast milk has been shown to have a positive effect on a child’s natural weight gain, helping them to avoid obesity in the future. It is burned (digested) much faster than formula, and the protein levels are not as high. Exclusive breastfeeding also avoids the introduction of foods that could contribute to unhealthy weight gain in infants.
There is also a difference in insulin levels between breastfed and formula-fed babies. Formula feeding can lead to higher levels of insulin in the blood, which could lead to diabetes in the future. Breast milk, on the other hand, contains biological factors that contribute to energy production and balance in children (11). Therefore, breastfeeding has also been found to help reduce the risk of obesity-onset conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
6. Breastfeeding Makes Your Baby Smarter
Breast milk does wonders for your baby’s brain development. The major contributing factor is the fat docasahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, that is found in human milk. It is essential for the growth, development, and maintenance of brain tissues. Autopsy analysis of brain tissue from breastfed babies show that they have the highest concentration of DHA. This fat is not found in man-made formulas, and, therefore, the level of DHA found in bottle-fed babies is much lower (12).
Not only is the breast milk itself great for brain development, but there have also been studies that show that the combined effects of human milk and the nurturing nature of breastfeeding produce greater results in brain development than breast milk alone (13). Your baby’s brain grows at a tremendous rate during the first two years of her life. Brain cells grow and connect with each other constantly, and every time your baby interacts with her environment, a new connection is made. Due to the interaction between mother and baby during breastfeeding, breastfed babies are at a higher advantage for brain development over those that are bottle-fed (14).
The length of time a baby breastfeeds also makes an impact on how much her brain grows. MRI’s done on children under the age of four showed that babies who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months showed significant growth in areas of the brain related to language, emotional function, and cognition (15). In addition, babies who are breastfed typically have I.Q. scores that are eight to ten points higher than those who are raised on formula, on average (16).
7. Breastfeeding Lowers the Risk of SIDS
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, kills approximately 2,500 babies in the United States every year, making it the third leading cause of infant mortality. There has not been a precise cause found, but it is believed that a combination of factors, such as an underlying abnormality in the brain (affecting lung and heart function, and, thus, prevents breathing and waking), second-hand smoke, or stomach sleeping, are likely contributors to the epidemic (17). Studies have shown that babies who are exclusively (or partially) breastfed have about a 50% reduced risk of suffering from SIDS (18). The exact reasoning is inconclusive, but there are many things that are believed to be responsible.
Respiratory infections are a contributing factor to SIDS risk, due to the inflammation of the lungs and constriction of the airway. Because of breast milk’s contributions to the immune system, breastfed babies are less likely to develop illnesses that could affect the respiratory system. Breast milk is also devoid of allergens present in cow or bean (like soy) milk, and breastfed babies have higher levels of the hormone progesterone in their blood, which stimulates breathing.
Babies need to develop their jawbones and muscles in order to ensure an open airway. Breastfed babies feed more often than formula-fed babies, giving them more opportunity to practice their sucking reflex and tongue movement. There have been dental studies that show babies that nurse at the breast rather than the bottle have better oral cavity development. Postmortem investigations have also shown that the victims of SIDS tend to have larger tongues (which block the airway), suggesting that perhaps bottle-feeding may contribute to over-growth (19).
8. Breastfeeding Produces Liquid Gold
Breast milk is often called liquid gold, due to its many miraculous properties. In addition to providing the best source of nutrition and boosting the immune system, it can be used topically to help prevent and cure common ailments. It can effectively cure ear and eye infections, and can clear up acne.
Ear infections are far too common among young babies and children. They can come with symptoms (pain, fever, and tugging at the ears) in the form of acute otitis media (AOM – inflammation caused by bacteria) or no symptoms (just complaints of difficult hearing or feeling “plugged up”) in the form of otitis media with effusion (OME – fluid build-up in the inner ear) (20).
Rather than automatically resorting to antibiotics (which have become commonplace and, as a result, have contributed to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria), try using breast milk. Putting a few drops in your baby’s ear every few hours can help to clear the infection. Most of the time, you can even see the infection (or the symptoms) clearing within 24-48 hours. This option is safer and less expensive than using antibiotics (21).
Breast milk can also be effective against eye infections as well. It can be squirted into your baby’s affected eye(s) (which is easily accomplish while they are sleeping, as it will seep behind her eyelid and not be a bother to her), can help to fight the bacteria that causes conjunctivitis (more commonly known as pink eye). It is a natural and safe alternative to the ingredients found in most eye drops (22).
9. Breastfeeding is Convenient
There is little to no prep when it comes to going out with your baby while breastfeeding. You do not need to pack any bottles (unless you are pumping) or formula, and there is no need to worry about where to make or how to heat up your formula. You are the food source. When your baby gets hungry, you simply need to find a comfortable spot and nurse away (23).
There is also a huge difference in cost between breast milk and formula. Your baby eats an average of 25 ounces per day over the course of her first year. At an average of $0.19 per ounce for formula (between $0.07 and $0.31 per ounce, depending on the quality you choose), you are looking at a total cost of over $1,700 a year, not to mention the cost of bottles. Breastfeeding is free, making it the ideal choice over formula (24).
10. Breastfeeding Encourages Positive Emotional Development
There was a study done that focused on the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL). This list evaluates children, with a questionnaire and sleep study completed by the parents, and measures them according to eight common behavioral syndrome constructs: withdrawn, anxious/depressed, somatic complaints (such as an intensive focus on physical pain or fatigue), social, attention, and thought problems, and delinquent and aggressive behavior. The higher a child scored, the more problematic their mental health was perceived to be.
It was found that the children who were breastfed scored lower on the CBCL, and this trend continued through adolescence. In addition, the longer a child breastfed, the better the results on their mental health were (25).
During breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact, the hormones oxytocin and serotonin are released, which encourages a strong bond to develop between mother and baby. Due to this bond, these children tend to have better emotional development and stability (26).
11. Breastfeeding Releases “Feel-Good” Hormones
Hormones play a vital role in the female reproductive system, from menstruation to childbirth to breastfeeding. One of these hormones, oxytocin, increases in abundance during pregnancy and lactation. It is released during childbirth, triggering contractions which push the baby toward the birth canal. It is also responsible for the milk ejection reflex, also known as milk letdown. This allows the milk to drop and start flowing when your baby is ready to eat, either triggered by the smell or sound of your baby, or by the suckling motion (27).
Oxytocin is also often called the “love hormone”. It is crucial in all aspects of human relationships and pair bonding. This hormone regulates social interaction, and plays a role in behavioral aspects such as empathy, trust, and generosity. It is also known to be the antidote to feelings of depression (28).
Breastfeeding can be the remedy to a variety of mental illnesses a mother may face after the delivery of her baby. Many women claim to feel relaxed while breastfeeding. This is because the release of oxytocin in the brain (from the pituitary gland) lowers stress and anxiety, lowers blood pressure, and fosters love and bonding between mother and baby (29). In fact, women who breastfeed are less likely to experience postpartum depression due to the increased level of oxytocin produced.
12. Breastfeeding Promotes Postpartum Healing
Not only does oxytocin help your body release milk and keeps your brain relaxed, it also plays a vital role in the healing process after childbirth. Your body has gone through some tremendous changes during the nine months of pregnancy. Your organs have rearranged, your skin has stretched to its limit, and your uterus has gone from the size of a pear to the size of a watermelon, in order to accommodate your little one.
Breastfeeding triggers the release of oxytocin which, in turn, helps the uterus to contract. These contractions help your uterus to return to its normal size. In fact, women who breastfeed find that their uterine healing time is typically around 6 weeks, while mothers who do not breastfeed may find it closer to 10 weeks (30).
You are also at risk for postpartum hemorrhaging after birth due to the trauma your body has endured. The uterine contractions resulting from the release of oxytocin prevents potential bleeding and hemorrhages. Mothers who do not breastfeed may be administered synthetic oxytocin intravenously while they are still in the hospital, but once they are released they need to be even more careful as they are highly susceptible to hemorrhages over the next few days following discharge (31).
Regardless of whether you breast or bottle feed, your body will still need a significant amount of time to heal completely. It takes at least a full year for a woman to feel “normal” again, both physically and mentally. It can even take the abdominal muscles about two years to return to a strong, healthy tone (32). So, take it easy, and slowly work your way back up to a normal activity level, keeping your expectations low so as to avoid disappointment.
13. Breastfeeding Delays Menstruation
While your hormones help you produce milk, they are also responsible for delaying the return of your period. The hormone prolactin suppresses the release of estrogen, which is responsible for regulating your menstrual cycle. As a result, the longer you nurse, the longer you go with either light or no periods (33).
With that being said, as soon as your baby begins to take a pacifier regularly, cuts back on nighttime feedings, or eats more solid foods, you may see your period return. When your baby cuts down on suckling, your brain releases less prolactin. When your menstrual cycle resumes, you may find it is irregular for a while (perhaps until you wean completely), and you may also notice a drop in your milk supply. Nothing to worry about, though. After continuing to nurse on a regular basis (whatever is regular for you and your baby), you will see your milk production return to normal (34).
14. Breastfeeding Burns Calories
Both the production and expulsion of breast milk burn calories and help you jump start your post-delivery weight loss. While many professionals will tell you that you burn between 300-500 calories a day breastfeeding, this number actually varies quite a bit depending on you and your baby.
On average, it takes about 20 calories for every ounce expressed. The number of ounces that are used per day can be difficult to determine if you are exclusively breastfeeding, and can be more easily determined if you are pumping. However, it is said that a baby should consume about 2 to 3 ounces per pound (body weight) per day, as long as they are exclusively breastfeeding (35).
When it comes to milk production, the amount of energy needed is about 80% of the energy produced. This means that of the 20 calories present in that ounce of milk, it took about 80% (or 16 calories) to produce it. To make it simple, this formula can help you determine how many calories you are burning on average: (# of ounces x 20 calories) / 0.80 = # of calories burned (36).
Knowing how many calories you are burning is important as you are likely to begin losing weight very quickly. You want to ensure you are still receiving the recommended number of calories per day so that you do not become malnourished and your milk supply does not suffer. For women in their prime child birthing years (ages 19-45) who are breastfeeding, it is recommended that you increase your caloric intake by 450-500 calories per day (37).
15. Breastfeeding Prevents Breast Cancer
There have been multiple studies that show the link between breastfeeding and a reduced risk in developing breast cancer. This is especially true for mothers who have their children younger and breastfeed for longer than a year (either consecutive or cumulative). The exact reasoning for this is unknown, but it is believed to be the result of a combination of factors, including changes in cell structure, weight management, and hormonal balance (38).
The constant production of milk limits the opportunity for the cells in your breasts to “misbehave”. The structure of your breasts also changes during lactation, allowing them to shed old cells that may have DNA damage and potentially lead to cancer in the future. Delay in the return of the menstrual cycle also suppresses the level of estrogen in your body. This hormone has been found to promote the growth of cancer cells. Women who are breastfeeding also tend to live healthier lifestyles, eating well, and limiting tobacco and alcohol use (39).
A study done by the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer showed that for every year a woman breastfeeds, she lowers her risk of developing breast cancer by 4.3% compared to those who did not. There has also been research that shows a lowered risk of ovarian cancer as a result of breastfeeding. It has been shown that breastfeeding for at least 13 months can lower your risk of developing ovarian cancer by 63% (40).
There are many foods that have been proven to have positive effects on milk production. These include fatty fish (like salmon), dark leafy greens, brewer’s yeast, flax, fennel, and oats, to name a few. Be sure to try these simple recipes, which include some great lactation promoters.
1. Carrot Cake Breakfast Cookies
Cookies? For breakfast? Yes, please! (Check out the recipe here)
Set your oven to 350° F, and allow to heat while you prepare your dough.
In a large bowl, mix together your dry ingredients and sugars: ½ cup of all-purpose flour, ½ cup of whole wheat flour, ¼ cup of oats, ½ teaspoon of baking powder, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon, 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar, ½ cup of brown sugar, and 2 tablespoons of brewer’s yeast (your milk-boosting ingredient). Set aside.
In a separate bowl, mix together ¼ cup of coconut oil (melted into liquid form), 1 egg, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Slowly add the dry ingredients in batches, mixing between each addition.
Once completely combined, add ½ cup of grated carrots, ½ cup of raisins, and 1/3 cup of toasted pecans. Mix together until all ingredients are evenly distributed.
On an ungreased cookie sheet, make tablespoon-sized cookies. Bake 18-20 minutes.
Enjoy with milk or tea.
2. Lactation Oatmeal
Oats are a great choice for increasing your milk supply, and this recipe offers a bonus, including other milk-boosting ingredients as well.
Simply mix together ½ cup of oats, 2 teaspoons of flax seed, ½ teaspoon of brewer’s yeast, a pinch of salt, cinnamon (to your preferred taste), and 1 cup of water. Microwave for about 3 minutes, and you’re done.
You can also add milk for a creamier consistency, honey for sweetness, or any fruit or nuts you desire.
This recipe is ideal for advanced preparation. You can create your own oatmeal packs to have ready. Just omit the brewer’s yeast and water until you are ready to cook it up.
3. Green Monkey Lactation Smoothie
Smoothies are a great choice for a meal on the go, and this recipe boasts milk-boosting powers with greens and flaxseed.
Just combine 1 cup of coconut milk, 2 tablespoons of almond butter, 1 tablespoon of coconut oil, 1 tablespoon of flaxseed meal, 2 cups of spinach, and 1 frozen banana (peeled and sliced) in a blender. Blend until smooth.
Enjoy with breakfast or as a meal on its own.
4. Chocolate Chip Banana Muffins
Satisfy your sweet tooth with a little bit of chocolate in these milk-making muffins.
Preheat your oven to 350° F and put your muffin liners in your tray.
In a large bowl, mash 3-4 very ripe bananas. Mix in 1/3 cup of soft butter (can be melted). Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1 egg, mix well, then add 1 cup of sugar and mix again. Set aside.
In another bowl, mix your dry ingredients: 1 cup of flour, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons of brewer’s yeast, and 2 tablespoons of flax seed.
Add your wet ingredients to your dry, mixing well until completely blended. Add ½ cup of oats, and mix again. Mix in a cup of chocolate chips and a cup of chopped nuts.
Fill eat muffin liner about ¾ full with your batter. Bake 25-30 minutes (for normal-sized muffins, less for mini muffins). Check your muffins with a toothpick or knife (should come out clean when they are done).
Let them cool, and indulge.
5. Homemade Mother’s Milk Tea
If you are a tea drinker, and you are interested in making your own tea blend, try this recipe which is sure to up your milk production.
All of your ingredients should be dried. Combine ½ cup of nettle leaf, ½ cup of red raspberry leaf, ¼ cup of alfalfa leaf, ¼ cup of dandelion leaf, ¼ cup of fennel seeds, and ¼ cup of blessed thistle. Cover in an air-tight container, and store in a dark place.
Using tea bags or a diffuser, add to boiling water (about 1 tablespoon of tea per cup of water) and allow it to steep for about 15 minutes.
To add more flavor, feel free to use honey or cinnamon. Can be enjoyed 3-5 times a day, for best results.
6. No-Bake Bites
These no-bake bites are simple to make, and are great for satisfying that midday snack attack.
Mix together 1 cup of oats, ½ cup of peanut butter, ½ cup of honey, 1 cup of coconut, ½ cup of flax meal, ½ cup of mini chocolate chips, 3 tablespoons of brewer’s yeast, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla.
Refrigerate the mixture for about a half hour, then roll into bite-sized balls.
Keep in the refrigerator in a sealed container, easily accessible for snack time.
7. Salmon Rice Salad
This salad recipe provides excellent nutrients for your milk to help your baby’s brain development.
Preheat your oven to 350° F. Wrap up a salmon fillet (with a pat of butter) in a foil parcel, and allow to bake for about 15 minutes, until cooked through.
While the salmon cools, cook rice according to the packaging, adding frozen peas about 4 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
In a large bowl, combine 1 diced red pepper, a small bunch of finely sliced spring onions, 2 tablespoons each of chopped parsley, chopped dill, and chopped chives.
Make your dressing by combining2 tablespoons of olive oil, 3 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon of honey, and salt and pepper (to taste).
Flake your fish and combine all ingredients together. Allow to chill for at least a half hour before serving.
8. Strawberry Fennel Salad
Power greens topped with refreshing strawberries makes this salad a great choice for a hot summer day.
Combine 4 cups of baby kale (or spring greens), sliced fresh strawberries, and a small fennel bulb (thinly sliced) in a large bowl. Drizzle your dressing, made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, herbs, and salt and pepper.
Feel free to top with sliced avocado, goat cheese crumbles, and chia seeds, if desired.