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The Importance of Breastfeeding Your Baby

Written by S.O.

Posted on April 13, 2015 at 7:16 pm

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Since the dawn of the rise of the mammals some 200 million years ago, breastfeeding has been a defining characteristic of class Mammalia. Obviously, how we rear our young is an important component of how they will do later on in life, so, because we can nourish our children with wholesome food made from our bodies, mammals hold a distinct advantage over other classes of animals.

Yet, besides a vague sense that, by breastfeeding our children, we’re doing something right by our offspring, many people may not know that there are some very distinct advantages we impart on your kids by taking part in this epochs-long tradition. Further, breastfeeding benefits the mother as well, helping to ward off postpartum depression while burning calories in the process.

Let’s take a look the makeup of breast milk, and then uncover some ways breastfeeding benefits both mother and child.

The basics

Photo by Chad Cooper

If we went into the laboratory to brew up baby food, we would be hard-pressed to develop for our offspring a more balanced substance than breast milk. Starting out as colostrum (a particularly potent combination of protein, fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, and immunoglobulins – which guard against allergies – perfect for newborns), transitional milk (which is higher in fat, lactose, and calories than colostrum), and mature milk, which is much higher in water content to keep growing babies properly hydrated.

Mature breast milk is made up of two types, the foremilk and hind-milk. The former comes at the beginning of a feeding, the latter after the initial release of the foremilk. Hind-milk contains a higher level of fat to encourage weight gain.

Boosting your baby’s health

As noted above, breast milk contains all the nutrients a baby needs across the first six months of his or her life. It is filled to the brim with novel and powerful disease-fighting substances, such as white blood cells, enzymes, and antibodies that boost and sustain a baby’s immunity. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), these benefits include defense against ear infections, diarrhea and vomiting, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and certain types of spinal meningitis.

Breast milk is especially potent for a newborn baby, decreasing his or her chances of hospitalization due to respiratory tract infections – include bronchiolitis, croup, and pneumonia. Breast milk also is particularly beneficial for infants in childcare programs, as it decreases their changes of illness over infants in the same scenario not similarly breastfeed.

Photo by Sander van der Wel

Breastfeeding seems to guard against SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), cutting the risk in half, while also decreasing by 20 percent your child’s risk of dying through the first year of life. Breastfeeding also has been linked to a decreased chance of your baby developing certain childhood cancers.

And the benefits don’t disappear once you’ve stopped breastfeeding your baby. An analysis of 17 studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology shows breastfeeding decreases your child’s chances of being overweight in the teen years through adulthood. Breastfeeding also has been shown to decrease the chances of eventually acquiring Type 1 and 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and high cholesterol.

Boosting your baby’s intelligence, both cognitive and emotional

On top of helping your baby remain healthy through the first two years of life, several studies support the idea that breastfeeding also may boost your baby’s intelligence.

Researchers have found that breastfeeding may increase brain white matter by as much as 20-30 percent over their non-breastfeed counterparts; a linear relationship exists between increased brain growth and breastfeeding duration as well. This increased brain growth seems to be centered in those parts of the brain associated with language, cognition, and emotional functions.

Photo by Jeremy Page

Intelligence seems to be higher in breastfed babies as well. One study of over 17,000 children found that from birth to about six-and-a-half years old, breastfed babies exhibited higher IQs and greater cognitive development. Linear results from a study of 4,000 children showed the five-year olds who were breastfeed as babies scored “significantly” higher on language tests.

Breastfeed children were found to be, at least correlatively, less likely to exhibit psychological, behavioral, and learning difficulties later in life. Some research supports that breastfed children are, on average, more assertive, mature, and secure in their self-esteem as they grow.

Boosting mother’s health, too

While the data supporting the benefits of breastfeeding babies might be all the encouragement a new mother needs, researchers also have found that breastfeeding imparts several benefits to her as well.

Photo by Stefano Morgla

A National Health Institute’s review of over 9,000 study abstracts confirmed a link between breastfeeding and a lowered risk of postpartum depression. Researchers have found a direct relationship between the act of breastfeeding and a mother’s feelings of contentment, security, connection, and decreased anxiety, the last of these because nursing releases the hormone oxytocin, which imparts feelings of relaxation while promoting nurturing behaviors. Oxytocin also has been shown to decrease a mother’s blood pressure, and helps to reduce the size of a mother’s uterus following childbirth.

The cancer-inhibiting benefits enjoyed by breastfeeding babies seems to extend to mother too, as once-nursing mothers have a decreased chance of developing breast and ovarian cancers later in life. Additionally, breastfeeding is known to encourage calorie burning, helping mothers to more quickly lose some of the extra weight they gained during pregnancy.

Finally, breastfeeding saves money! There’s no costly baby formula to buy, and, with a healthier baby, there will be less co-pays to dish out at the doctor’s office. And, with a healthy baby, you’ll miss less work staying home to nurse a sick kid.

While it may seem like breastfeeding advocates are overselling the importance of breastfeeding, the science supports the notion that, all things being equal, breastfeeding is superior to feeding babies formula. And, that should come as no surprise: Breastfeeding is something we mammals have been doing for a very long time.

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