I believe in the power of education and strive to make well thought out and informed decisions. Sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes I’m not – and sometimes I drive my husband a little crazy when I do things like take two weeks to research the best toaster oven or enlist him to help purge our kitchen of plastic after reading a few studies on how it can disrupt the endocrine system. For the most part, my proclivity towards research has served me well both personally and professionally.
Once I got pregnant, I read a lot about pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and taking care of babies. The subject of breastfeeding really intrigued me. In making the decision to breastfeed, I was astounded by the overall health benefits to my baby. Because of these benefits, the World Heath Organization (“WHO”) recommends exclusively breastfeeding your baby for the first six months of his or her life followed by continued breastfeeding for two years or beyond.
Breast milk contains the nutrients babies need in a highly bioavailable form. After all, it is specifically made for them. The American Pregnancy Association (“APA”) reports that breast milk is easily digestible and allows babies absorb a higher percentage of some nutrients, like calcium and iron, as compared to formula or cow’s milk.
Breast milk also contains antibodies that help protect babies and toddlers from illness. In a symbiotic relationship, the mother starts producing antibodies when exposed to viruses or bacteria from her baby or her environment. She then secrets the antibodies into the breast milk to pass to her baby to bolster his or her developing immune system. This systemic support reduces the baby’s frequency and duration of illness. Breastfed babies are much less likely to get colds, and ear and respiratory infections.
Another interesting study cited by Healthline notes that adolescents and adults who were breastfed as babies are less likely to be overweight and obese and are up to 40% less likely to develop type II diabetes. This statistic interests me considering I have a family history of diabetes and because of its increasing prevalence in our society. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) reports that nearly one in five school age children are obese and the overall obesity rate in the United States sits at 39.8%. That percentage increases to 71.6% when you include adults 20 years old and over who are overweight. The CDC also reports that 40% of Americans live with diabetes or prediabetes.
Now, I do not think breastfeeding will magically immunize my son from struggling with his weight or suffering from type II diabetes. My husband and I both recognize our responsibility to help him learn to take care of his body through diet and exercise. We remain acutely aware of the strong external influence coming from the American junk food culture and lack of focus exercise. I also acknowledge how much my ongoing maintenance and commitment to my diet and exercise impact my overall health and sense of well being. He will need to learn effective skills and apply them over his lifetime to maintain his long term health.
On the other hand, research shows that breastfeeding may indeed provide my son with tangible advantages in an effort to maintain a healthy body weight. One such benefit comes from endocrine system. According to a study cited by Heathline, babies who breastfeed produce more of the hormone leptin than their formula-fed babies counterparts. Leptin helps regulate appetite and manage fat (energy) storage within the body.
Another advantage comes from the development of his gut microbiome. Breastfed babies have higher amounts of beneficial microbiota. This gut bacteria helps stimulate the immune system, break down food, and synthesize nutrients. More recent studies also suggest a connection between the microbiome and the central nervous system, including mental health. I look forward to reading about new developments in this field.
The list continues with Dr. Brian Lynch, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, who was quoted on on the Mayo Clinic’s website as saying that breastfeeding results in “small improvements in neurodevelopmental outcomes in children” and a reduction in “chronic adult conditions like obesity, cancer, heart disease and allergies.”
Other benefits of breastfeeding noted by Healthline include a reduced risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (up to a 50% reduction in the first month of life) and childhood leukemia, and lower incidents of celiac disease and childhood inflammatory bowel disease. Breastfed babies also get fewer ear infections and may have better oral development.
This list is not all inclusive and does not consider the health benefits to the mother or other emotional and developmental benefits of breastfeeding. Those are for another post. It does provide some of the benefits of breastfeeding that in part influenced my husband’s and my decision that it was right for our family. It also helped solidify my determination to breastfeed and remain focused in those first overwhelming weeks after birth when I was unsure of our abilities.