Written by Melanie Maldonado, Dietetic Intern
Benefits of breastfeeding for babies
Breast Milk is the only food needed by the majority of infants in the first months of life. It also contains all the water needed. Breast Milk contains proteins, non-protein nitrogen compounds, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, cells, minerals, and anti-infectious agents. The protein in breastmilk is usually very easy for the baby to digest, compared to formula. Infant formula has about 25 ingredients, while breast milk has over 400 identified components (“ingredients”) and researchers are learning more every day.
Breast Milk is dynamic, and changes based on many factors, including age of the baby and health of the baby. Because breastmilk quite amazingly adapts to babies needs and provides antibodies and other disease-fighting properties, breastfed babies have fewer infections and hospitalizations than formula-fed babies. When moms and babies are exposed to the same bacteria/viruses/”germs”, the mother’s body makes antibodies to fight those pathogens. This is passed through the breastmilk to the baby.
Breast Milk also changes composition during a feeding. The first milk of a feeding that a baby drinks has a higher water content – this helps to quench the baby’s thirst. Throughout the feeding, the milk the baby is drinking increases in fat content – this helps the baby to feel full and satiated and may help the baby fall asleep.
According to the WHO, breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests, are less likely to be overweight or obese, and are less prone to diabetes later in life. They are also less likely to have allergies, asthma, and certain autoimmune diseases.
Breast milk is so beneficial for babies that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and supports continued breastfeeding until two years of age or beyond.
When babies are first born their little stomachs are very tiny, about the size of a cherry, and hold just a teaspoon of milk at a time. The first milk mom’s bodies make is called colostrum and is very thick, yellow, and comes out in small amounts – perfect for newborns. This first milk is very high in immune and growth supporting components.
Breastfeeding is also beneficial for moms. Right after delivery, breastfeeding causes the uterus to contract and return to normal size and reduces postpartum bleeding. Breastfeeding may also promote faster weight loss, as the mother uses about 500 extra calories a day while breastfeeding. In the long term, breastfeeding can reduce the mother’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. Exclusive breastfeeding may also help with child spacing.
Breastfeeding is also an opportunity for bonding with the baby. Breastfeeding also produces the hormone oxytocin, which has a calming effect in the body and may lead to less risk of postpartum depression and a more positive, calm mood. It is also important to note that breastfeeding often makes travel easier, because breast milk is always clean and the right temperature.
How to boost supply
Breast milk is supply and demand. The more milk taken from the breast signals the body to make more milk. If less milk than normal is removed from the breast, signals will be sent to make less milk. Still, most moms worry about whether they are making enough milk. There are signs that indicate that the baby is getting enough milk – primarily weight gain and number of wet and dirty diapers.
Breastfeeding frequently, especially in the first weeks is the main way to increase milk supply. More tips for mothers to make more milk are: breastfeeding every time the baby is hungry (don’t follow a schedule), make sure the baby is latching well, offer both breasts at each feedings, empty breasts at each feeding (pumping after feedings), and avoid bottle and pacifiers in the early weeks. It is also important to get plenty of sleep and to eat a healthy diet. If a mother has concerns about milk supply, a lactation counselor may be able to help.
Breastfeeding mothers may need to eat 300-400 extra calories per day to produce milk. Protein rich foods such as meat, eggs, dairy, beans, and seafood low in mercury are beneficial for milk production. Many health care providers recommend taking a daily multivitamin while breastfeeding. One really interesting fact is that the flavor of breastmilk changes with the food the mother eats. Because of this, breastfed babies may be more accepting of new tastes when starting solid foods – in other words may be a less “picky eater”.
Another interesting fact: many parents say breastfed baby poop does not smell bad compared to formula-fed infant’s poop!
Some parents also choose to breastfeed their baby because it can save money. Infant formula costs an average of $1,200-$1,500 for a baby’s first year. While breastfeeding technically doesn’t cost anything it is important to consider the potential cost of a pump, nursing bras and pads, nipple creams, milk storage bags, nursing pillow, and covers. However, many insurance providers cover the cost of a pump.