What are the breastfeeding benefits for babies? Let us count the ways.
We’re not here to shame or pressure any parent for how they feed their baby. There’s a lot of pressure on breastfeeding parents to do things exactly the right way.
But guess what? There is no exact right way to care for your baby. Instead, there are many ways to care for your baby, and they each have their unique benefits for you, your baby, and your family.
“Breast milk changes day to day, moment to moment. You may be at the park on a warm summer day, as your baby nurses and your milk will be more hydrating-filled with electrolytes and vitamins. When your baby is going through a growth spurt, your milk will be fattier and rich in proteins and carbohydrates. It’s unique to your baby’s needs.” -Lori Theisen, IBCLC
That being said, breastfeeding is pretty amazing, and its benefits for your baby are undeniable. If you’re considering whether breastfeeding is the right choice or just need a little positive reinforcement, read on below.
Breastfeeding benefits for newborns
When your baby is born, they come into the world with a sensitive, untested immune system. It can be challenging for them to fight off infections, illnesses, and germs, whether big or small.
Breastfeeding Unplugged: The Magic of Breast Milk
Join Madison, Wisconsin-based IBCLC and Nest Collaborative team member, Lori Theisen, to talk about why breast milk is so special.
Thankfully, breast milk safeguards your baby from the very beginning. It’s full of stem cells, white blood cells, beneficial bacteria, antibodies, enzymes, and hormones, all of which protect your baby and help them grow. What’s more, it protects your baby right away, starting with the first milk your breasts produce—colostrum.
Colostrum is a powerhouse in lots of ways, but particularly in its immune system boosting. A study from 2013 uncovered that approximately 70% of the cells in colostrum are leukocytes (white blood cells), which are the cells that produce immunoglobulins. As your breast milk shifts from colostrum to transitional milk, the leukocyte levels drop down to 2%—but if you or your baby get sick, the leukocyte count jumps right back up.
It lines your baby’s gut with a protective layer that guards against infections and diseases and supports good bacteria. It helps your baby regulate their body temperature, blood sugar, metabolism, and lung and vascular functions thanks to their powerful combination of antibodies. (See below for more about antibodies and breastfeeding!) It helps your baby pass meconium, the black, tarry stool that builds up in the womb. In turn, this reduces the risk of jaundice.
Your breasts only produce colostrum for a few days, but even as your milk changes from transitional milk to mature milk, your baby will continue to benefit from it.
Benefits for NICU babies
While all newborns benefit from breast milk, the benefits are incredibly potent for premature babies, babies who need NICU care, or otherwise have compromised health. Breast milk can protect against potentially fatal infections like sepsis and necrotizing enterocolitis.
Because breast milk is so precisely formulated for babies, it also provides the best nutritional support for NICU babies. Here are a few reasons why breast milk benefits NICU babies:
The protein in breast milk is more manageable for their tiny, more sensitive stomachs to digest than formula.
The lipase in breast milk helps babies digest essential fats more readily, which means faster weight gain.
Preterm milk has higher quantities of fat, protein, and minerals like sodium, chloride, and iron. This mixture supports the needs of a preterm baby more precisely than formula. Preterm milk also has more antibodies and other disease-preventing factors to help babies fight off infections.
Breastfeeding your NICU baby does more than protecting their health, though. It can aid in cognitive development. A study at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, found that preterm breast milk—specifically, for babies born between 23 and 32 weeks of gestation—has higher amounts of the biochemicals that support brain growth.
“Some NICU babies are born early and are unable to nurse,” shares Nest Collaborative IBCLC, Lori Theisen. “However, your body knows your baby was born early, so your milk is fattier, helping your preemie grow. It’s everything your baby needs. You can help your milk production—and your baby—along by doing skin-to-skin before pumping and pumping in your baby’s NICU room. This helps your body learn what antibodies your baby needs to thrive.”
Immune system benefits of breastfeeding
Breast milk isn’t powerful just because of what’s in it. It’s also powerful because of how it’s made. More specifically, because of you, the breastfeeding parent.
When you breastfeed your newborn, you’re sharing with them everything that your immune system knows about the world.
Just think about that for a moment. The antibodies that your immune system already produces can help protect your baby. That means if you’ve had vaccinations, exposure to germs and bacteria, even food allergens—your baby’s immune system picks up on it and starts learning how to defend itself.
What’s more, breastfeeding works as a two-way street. As your baby gradually becomes exposed to other germs, they are passed on to you. Your immune system responds and creates antibodies, which are then shared via your breast milk. This cycle continues throughout your entire nursing relationship, meaning that your child benefits just as much as a 2-year old nursling as they do a 2-month old one.
What actually does the work here, though? There are live biological components that make breast milk such a dynamic substance.
For one, immunoglobulins. Immunoglobulins are produced by white blood cells. Among the most important is secretory immunoglobulin A (also known as SIgA). SIgA gets a gold star for the work it does for your baby’s immune system, coating their internal organs and digestive, respiratory, and reproductive tract linings to protect them.
SIgA isn’t the only immunoglobulin that helps your baby, though. Immunoglobulin A and M also protect your baby against both bacterial and viral infections. And all of this is balanced out by other immune system factors—lactoferrin and interleukin-6, -8, and -10 are essential proteins for creating balance in the immune system’s inflammatory response.
Enzymes also do critical immune system work in breast milk. Lysozyme protects your baby against bacterias like E. Coli and Salmonella, promotes healthy intestinal flora, and works as an anti-inflammatory agent.
“Breast milk is always the perfect food, whatever age of the baby or child,” Theisen shares. “It is literally made to order with each nursing session. There are fever-reducing and pain-reducing properties in breast milk, so when your toddler takes a tumble, your milk helps soothe any discomfort.”
Breastfeeding isn’t just beneficial for newborns — there are substantial health benefits for your child throughout your breastfeeding journey. Research is continually uncovering new reasons why breastfeeding is impressive. Here’s what we know so far.
When you exclusively breastfeed your baby for the first 6 months, they’re less likely to experience diarrhea, gastroenteritis, ear and chest infections, staph and E. Coli infections, and the cold and flu.
Probiotic is a word that’s used a lot in health and wellness marketing, but the actual benefits of probiotics can get lost in the buzz. So what does it mean for something to be probiotic?
Probiotic refers to a food or substance containing live microorganisms supporting or improving the “good” bacteria in your gut. And as a dynamic source of nutrition, breast milk contains probiotic factors. Specifically, human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) and milk microbiota are the two main components of breast milk that influence your baby’s gut health. HMOs are especially valuable, promoting bacteria like Bifidobacteria that support the immune system.
Breast milk is complete nutrition for your baby. It’s all they need for the first 6 months—even the first year—of their life. It’s easily digestible and designed specifically for your baby’s individual nutritional and immunological needs. Currently, researchers have identified over 200 active components in breast milk that promote your baby’s development and growth.
“Breast milk is filled with amazing components. Your milk even has cells that seek and find tumor and cancer cells and kills them. Your body is nothing short of amazing,” Theisen comments.
Breast milk is approximately 90% water, which supports your baby’s hydration, regulates their body temperature, and protects organs. However, breast milk contains more than water. It’s also made up of:
Carbohydrates for energy and promote healthy bacteria in your baby’s gut
Fatty acids help the brain, nervous system, and vision development—and those sweet chunky baby fat rolls, of course.
Protein to support your baby’s growth, as well as the production of hormones, enzymes, and antibodies.
Antibodies like secretory immunoglobulin A (SIgA) fight off ailments by coating the lungs and intestines.
Hormones support growth, metabolism, and other critical physiological functions.
Enzymes aid in digestion and immune system functions.
Fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K and water-soluble vitamins like C, riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid are essential for your baby’s health. Vitamins in breast milk correspond to your vitamin intake, though, so make sure that you’re eating a balanced diet and continue taking a prenatal vitamin for the duration of your breastfeeding experience.
Parents pay close attention to their baby’s development, assessing whether they’re meeting all the appropriate milestones. Breastfeeding, as it turns out, may help with that. Consider the following.
A US study found that toddlers and preschoolers who had exclusively breastfed for at least three months had 20-30% more white matter in their brains. White matter connects different regions of the brain and helps transmit information between them.
This additional white matter may be the link between breastfed children and cognitive development. One study conducted at Boston Children’s Hospital found parallels between breastfeeding duration and IQ; each additional month a baby was breastfed led to higher verbal and non-verbal IQ scores at the age of 7.
Another study conducted in the UK looked at sixteen-year-olds who had been breastfed for 6 months or longer—they all were more likely to get higher grades in their school exams.
Although scientists haven’t determined precisely why breastfeeding supports cognitive development to such a remarkable extent, one theory suggests that it might be due to the long-chain fatty acids in breastmilk, which correlates to brain development.
Emotional and behavioral development
There are many ways to support and nurture your child emotionally—and breastfeeding is one of them.
An immediate benefit to breastfeeding is that the act of nursing—not the milk, but nursing itself—has a calming, analgesic effect on little ones. Studies have shown that the act of suckling reduces heart and metabolic rates and the ability to perceive pain in infants.
Breastfeeding also provides an opportunity for skin-to-skin contact between parent and baby.
What’s more, each nursing session provides your baby with oxytocin. Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,”—encourages parent-baby bonding and helps your baby cope with stress.
But when looking at research, it’s important to be mindful of the overall picture. While many studies support breastfeeding’s emotional and behavioral, developmental benefits, the evidence is far from comprehensive. Infant and child development is multifactorial, meaning that it’s hard—if not impossible—to pin development on just one thing.
Those early days of parenthood can seem endlessly sleepless, but research shows that breastfed babies might let their parents get just a little bit more sleep. Why’s that?
According to Nest Collaborative IBCLC Lori Theisen, this is because “Prolactin is the hormone that produces breast milk. This hormone level is the highest in the middle of the night and early morning. Babies are born knowing this and love to nurse at those times because they know they can get some really good fatty milk.”
But even though babies may wake up frequently to boost their intake of fatty milk, breastfeeding also provides babies with a helpful boost of oxytocin. This hormone relaxes your baby and helps them fall back asleep faster. Over time, breastfeeding can also help your baby develop better sleep-wake patterns, thanks to the hormones and nucleotides in your breast milk.
Breastfeeding offers so many benefits for your baby when they’re a baby, but what about as they grow into a toddler and preschooler? What are the benefits of extended breastfeeding like?
Compared to breastfeeding and infancy, there’s not much research done on children who breastfeed past the age of two. That being said, the information available indicates that breastfeeding continues to help your child thrive.
A study conducted in 2016 found that in the second year postpartum, breast milk had notably higher concentrations of protein, lactoferrin, lysozyme, and immunoglobulin A than milk bank samples.
Your journey, our support
We want all parents to feel confident about their decision to breastfeed their baby. We’re here to answer your questions and help you find solutions. Book a convenient online video appointment with a Nest Collaborative IBCLC today.
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