The early weeks of pregnancy are fragile—and confusing. Here, the answers to your questions.
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It’s as simple as this: The best way to feed your baby is to breastfeed. The benefits are numerous, chief among them being that breastfed babies are healthier—in infancy and later in life—than their formula-fed counterparts.
One of the most remarkable features of breast milk is that its composition evolves in concert with your baby’s needs. For the first few days after childbirth, your body produces colostrum, the earliest form of breast milk. Not only is it brimming with antibodies, but it’s also high in protein and low in sugar and fat, which makes it easier for your newborn to digest, says Ruth A. Lawrence, M.D., author of Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession (Mosby-Yearbook). Following colostrum, your body begins to produce mature milk, which has more protein, fat and sugar to fuel your baby’s growth and development.
Then there are the short- and long-term health benefits. Mother’s milk protects against diarrhea, lower-respiratory infections and ear infections in infancy. And again, that protection is dynamic. “Mothers produce immunological components in breast milk that are specific to their environments,” says M. Jane Heinig, Ph.D., I.B.C.L.C., executive director of the University of California, Davis, Human Lactation Center. In other words, if everyone in your family is fighting a bug, your breast milk will help your baby’s immune system go to battle against it. “Studies also show that breastfed kids are less likely to have chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, allergies and Hodgkin’s disease later in life,” Heinig adds. “And they show a small but consistent advantage in cognitive and academic tests.”
Mothers enjoy benefits, too. One advantage is that after delivery, breastfeeding helps the uterus to contract, reducing the risk for hemorrhage. There are other pluses as well: “Women who nurse for more than three months are more likely to return to their prepregnancy weight by the end of the first year,” Heinig says. “And mothers who breastfeed even longer have a lower risk for breast and ovarian cancer.”
Finally, breastfeeding gets the “No Housekeeping” seal of approval. Nurse your baby and you may never know the joys (and expense) of buying, mixing and storing formula, or of sterilizing bottles. You will never know the heartbreak of the bottle that’s 1 ounce short of getting your baby to sleep. Never again will perfect nutrition be this brainless. Don’t miss the boat.