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Benefits of breastfeeding for baby and mom

Experts break down the extraordinary health benefits of breastfeeding for babies, as well as the key health advantages moms can gain from nursing, too.

Breastfeeding offers health benefits for both baby and mom

Most new parents are encouraged to breastfeed, but not all parents are completely aware of what the specific benefits of breastfeeding are. What’s more, they may simply think of breastfeeding as a healthy choice for their baby without realizing that moms benefit from breastfeeding, too.

Understanding that breastfeeding has health benefits for both babies and moms is one of the best kept secrets about breastfeeding, says Dr. Rebekah Diamond, a pediatric hospitalist in New York City and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University.

Being informed about these benefits is also one of the things that can motivate new parents to keep going in those early postpartum weeks, especially as they face breastfeeding challenges.

“Breastfeeding is hard work for everyone and will always have challenges,” says Diamond. “But the physical and emotional experience of breastfeeding, once it’s established, can be a truly wonderful and meaningful part of becoming a parent.”

What are the benefits of breastfeeding overall?

What do those health benefits look like exactly? Here’s a snapshot:

Benefits of breastfeeding for mom

Benefits of breastfeeding for baby

Why is breastfeeding important for your baby?

Breast milk offers excellent, balanced nutrition for your baby, which is why the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, when possible.

But what makes breast milk different from other foods is the way it benefits your baby’s immune system. As Dr. Rachel Miller, an OB/GYN practicing in the Charlotte, North Carolina area, explains, “Babies receive passive antibodies from the mother. This helps develop the baby’s immune system.”

Passive immunity” is when someone receives immunity from elsewhere, rather than producing it themselves in reaction to a pathogen. In other words, breast milk offers your baby protection against viruses (including COVID-19), bacteria and other threats, without having to actually be sickened by them.

This is important for babies, who are much more susceptible to severe disease than those of us who already have an established immune system. It’s why doctors generally see fewer serious cases of respiratory illnesses and ear infections in breastfed babies, says Miller.

Miller says these protections are especially important for vulnerable babies, such as babies who were born preterm or who have medical complications.

How long does a baby benefit from breastfeeding?

There are both short-term and long-term benefits to breastfeeding, Miller explains. Many of the short-term benefits involve protection from common childhood viruses and diseases such as colds, RSV, whooping cough, pneumonia, ear infections and gastroenteritis.

Babies who are breastfed are less likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which tragically kills about 2,000 babies a year. In fact, a 2017 study found that even just two months of breastfeeding — whether exclusively or partially breastfeeding — cuts a baby’s risk of SIDS in half.

Longer term benefits of breastfeeding for babies include protection from Type 2 diabetes, childhood obesity, allergies and childhood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. Diamond points out, though, that while these benefits should be celebrated, the association between breastfeeding and these outcomes isn’t entirely clear.

“The data we have is correlations, and it’s not clear exactly how much this is pure cause and effect,” says Diamond. “But there is definitely an association between breastfeeding and life-lasting health benefits.” 

How is breastfeeding beneficial to the mother?

For many moms, breastfeeding feels like the most natural way to feed and bond with their babies. But most moms will tell you that their favorite thing about breastfeeding is how convenient it can be. No need to prepare bottles or lug around heavy bags of supplies. Plus, it’s free!

Alexandra Fung, a mom from Buena Park, California, and co-founder of Upparent, says that she valued the bonding time she had with her four children, all of whom she breastfed. But the biggest benefit to her as a parent was how much easier it made her busy life.

“In all honesty, one of my favorite things about it has been how much I felt it simplified caring for my babies,” says Fung. “I’ve loved not having to deal with bottles, with carrying around formula any time we go out, with getting up to go to the kitchen in the middle of the night to prepare a bottle, and with these last two, not even having to set aside time to pump.” 

Does breastfeeding affect mothers’ health?

Many benefits of breastfeeding can be felt in the days right after giving birth. Breastfeeding can help mothers bond with their babies. The baby’s suckling helps the uterus contract back to its normal size and decreases postpartum bleeding. There is also some evidence that mothers who breastfeed are less at risk for experiencing postpartum depression.

But many of the benefits of breastfeeding for moms are longer term. Breastfeeding leads to a lower overall risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Breastfeeding can also lower a mother’s risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. This is thought to be due to an overall decrease in exposure to estrogen in the months that a mother breastfeeds.

Do babies and moms benefit even if they aren’t exclusively breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding can be extremely difficult sometimes. Many moms end up needing to supplement with formula due to issues like low milk supply or because they need to return to work and can’t keep up with pumping.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about the benefits of breastfeeding is that any amount of breast milk you are able to provide for your baby counts. “It’s a tragic and common misconception that breastfeeding is all or none,” says Diamond

Diamond says that breast milk has benefits for moms and babies, even in smaller amounts, and she urges moms not to compare themselves to other moms when it comes to how they feed their babies.

“There are plenty of reasons why introducing some amount of formula will be beneficial in the short or long term,” she says, “and this does not take away from the awesome benefits of breast milk that you do end up giving your baby.”