Breastfeeding Benefits For Mother and Baby

Photo via: Getty Images

Photo via: Getty Images

The following is a guest column from by Dr. Allayne Stephans, pediatric hospitalist at UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, and mom of three boys ages toddler to grade school.

It was midnight. After nearly 30 hours of labor I had just delivered my first son. He weighed nine pounds, had a head that looked like an extraterrestrial creature, and he was hungry. I swear the OB put him on my stomach and he inched his way towards my chest, anxious for his first meal.

Compared to other new mothers, I felt I was well-prepared. I was about to start a pediatric residency and I had read several books on parenting. The books said I would feed every 2-3 hours in the beginning, make sure the baby latched appropriately, and keep an eye on the wet diapers he was producing. No problem. 

It turned out to be a little more complicated than that.  My son spent the first 36 hours of his life attached to me. I had a postpartum hemorrhage so I was anemic. It was my first baby and a traumatic delivery so it took longer than average for my milk to come in.  He cried a lot in the first few days and his weight gain was not that great.  After a month or so things improved, although he was never an every-three-hour feeder.

When I started work I was lucky to be at an institution that supports new mothers and offers a fully equipped breastfeeding room.  Nonetheless, I often felt my experience was a far cry from the serene pictures I had seen of mothers lovingly cradling their infants. Had I not known about the many benefits of breastfeeding, I might not have stuck with it. But I did and here's why.

Breast milk is the perfect food for babies

The advantages of breast milk extend way beyond basic nutrition. The vitamins and minerals in breast milk are tailored to the needs of your baby, and breast milk also contains immunoglobulins and live cells that support immune function and help your baby ward off unwanted illnesses. 

I tell new moms they will be seeing a lot less of me if they choose to breastfeed.  Whether its common colds and ear infections or serious infections like meningitis and pneumonia, breastfed babies are simply less likely to get sick. Breast milk also contains a natural laxative so unlike their formula-fed counter parts they tend to have fewer problems with constipation.

There is likely a reduced risk of obesity later in life in breastfed infants compared to formula-fed matched controls. Less obesity in turn means decreased rates of Type II diabetes and other obesity-related disorders. Several studies have supported an improvement in intellectual development in breastfed infants. They also tend to cry less often and have a stronger bonds with their mothers. 

Breastfeeding benefits mothers too   

Although moms are most interested in doing what's best for our babies, there are perks of breastfeeding for mothers too.  Multiple studies have supported an association between breastfeeding and an overall reduction in breast cancer risk. One large pooled study of > 50,000 women with breast cancer and >96,000 matched controls showed breastfeeding for 12 months or more was associated with 4.3% reduction in the risk of developing breast cancer. Risk reduction has also been demonstrated with other cancers, including cancers of the ovaries and fallopian tubes. 

Milk production also requires a lot of calories which helps moms shed pregnancy weight faster and spend less postpartum time in maternity wear. When the baby suckles it stimulates the production of oxytocin which causes uterine contractions. Right after birth this helps the uterus return to its original size. This in turn reduces the number of times a well-intentioned stranger asks you when your baby is due after he or she has already been born! Mothers who breastfeed also tend to have a lower incidence of anxiety and post-partum depression and form stronger maternal-infant bonds.

There are so many advantages to breastfeeding that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, and continuing breastfeeding until at least their first birthday, with the addition of other foods.

Despite all this good evidence, the bottom line is breastfeeding can be hard.  Your experience will likely be different from mine, but very few women are able to breastfeed without overcoming a few obstacles. Some things in life that start out as challenges can end up being your greatest joys!  

By University Hospitals, Allayne Stephans, MD, Pediatric Hospitalist, UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital