For most of human history there has been just one source of nutrition for babies before weaning, that is, of course, human breast milk. It provides the most natural and optimal nourishment, containing everything babies need to grow and thrive in the first six months as well as being convenient and completely free. For many years, researchers have been studying breast milk and identifying what makes it optimal. As a result, we know that breastfeeding has a number of important benefits to both mothers and babies.
Provision of nutrients
Breast milk is the only natural food tailored for newborn babies. It provides the perfect balance of nutrients required for optimal growth and development and changes in composition over time to meet the babies changing requirements. The nutrients are provided in a form that is easy to digest and highly bioavailable, so they are readily absorbed by an infant’s immature digestive system1.
Breast milk contains enzymes to further help the digestion process1. Compared to cow’s milk, breast milk contains less protein and fewer electrolytes to ensure the baby’s immature kidneys are not overloaded2.
Health benefits to baby
Babies are born with an immature immune system that leaves them vulnerable to infection and disease. Breast milk, which is specifically adapted to the needs of the newborn, provides several tiers of defence including1:
- Antibodies – produced by the immune system in response to foreign substances (antigens) that may be a threat to the body
- Protective agents – ranging from those which help to support the immune system to those which help protect against bacteria, and viruses
- Prebiotics – help to increase the levels of friendly bacteria naturally present in the baby’s gut
A WHO systematic review on the long term benefits of breastfeeding was published in 2013 which indicated a reduction in the risk of childhood obesity and diabetes3.
Other research shows that breastfeeding benefits infants by reducing the risk of4,5 :
- Gastroenteritis, diarrhoea and vomiting
- Asthma and eczema
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
The WHO review also associates breastfeeding with a higher IQ3.
Possible health benefits to Mum
For mothers, breastfeeding has been associated with a reduced risk of2,3:
- Breast cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Type 2 diabetes6
Despite popular belief a recent review of the evidence showed that breastfeeding was not associated with post-partum weight change, although previous research has shown that there may be a beneficial effect on post-partum weight loss for women who breastfeed for more than 6 months7. The benefits are dose related therefore the more exclusive and longer the breastfeeding, the higher the overall benefits. Although more research is needed in this area, we know breastfeeding naturally uses up to 500 calories a day 2.
Breast milk is convenient, ready to feed and available whenever and wherever needed. There is no need for preparation and storage and it is already the right temperature. Breast milk can be considered sterile, as it naturally minimises the risk of bacterial contamination.
Breast milk is also free, whereas infant formula, sterilising equipment and feeding equipment can be costly.