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—as infants and in later life—than their formula-fed counterparts. But babies aren’t the only ones who benefit from breastfeeding: Moms enjoy perks, too, post-delivery and even years later.
One of the most remarkable features of breast milk is that it not only provides perfect nutrition, but it does so dynamically: Its composition evolves in concert with your baby’s needs. According to Ruth A. Lawrence, M.D., a professor of pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester in New York and author of Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession (Mosby-Yearbook, 1998), for the first few days after childbirth, your body produces colostrum, the earliest form of breast milk. Not only is it brimming with antibodies to protect against infection, but it is also high in protein and low in sugar and fat, which makes it easier for your newborn to digest. Following colostrum, your body begins to produce mature milk, which is higher in 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 babies against lower respiratory infections, diarrhea and ear infections. And again, that protection is dynamic: “Mothers produce immunological components in breast milk that are specific to their environments,” says nutrition researcher Jane Heinig, Ph.D., a certified lactation consultant and editor in chief of the Journal of Human Lactation. 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. “Studies also show that breastfed kids are less likely to have chronic diseases, allergies and Hodgkin’s disease,” Heinig adds. “And they show a small but consistent advantage in cognitive and academic tests.”
One advantage for moms is that after delivery, breastfeeding helps the uterus 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,” says Heinig. “And mothers who breastfeed even longer have a lower risk for premenopausal breast cancer and ovarian cancer.”
Finally, breastfeeding gets the “No Housekeeping” seal of approval. Breastfeed your baby and you may never know the joys of mixing and storing formula or sterilizing bottles and equipment. 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.