Reasons to Breastfeed

The abundance of good things in mother's milk offers your baby lifelong benefits.


If someone were to offer you an elixir that could help protect your new baby from bronchitis, ear infections, pneumonia, diarrhea and urinary tract infections, would you want to know more? If you knew that the effects of this concoction would last into your child's teen-age years, reducing his risk for obesity, diabetes, allergies, asthma and high blood pressure, would you just have to have it? If the same potion might boost his IQ, wouldn't you rush out to find it now?

Well, stay put, for this power-packed product is close to home (or should be soon): It's breast milk. And while you might think it's premature to start thinking about breastfeeding now, studies show that by making a commitment to it while you're pregnant, you'll boost your chances of providing your baby with the best possible nutrition and disease-fighting factors. Need more convincing? Here's what we know about the woman-made miracle that is breast milk. It will make your baby healthier. For years, scientists have been teasing out the ingredients that make breast milk the ideal food for infants. To date, they've discovered close to 200 compounds that fight infection, help the immune system mature, aid in digestion and support brain growth — nature-made properties that science simply cannot emulate.

"There is just no way to put all of those properties in formula," says Michael Georgieff, M.D., professor of pediatrics and child development at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Indeed, the numbers say it all. Infants who are solely formula-fed have an 80 percent increased risk of developing diarrhea and a 70 percent increased risk of developing ear infections, according to a study by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of more than 1,600 mothers and their infants. Those babies who received only breast milk fared the best, but a little formula didn't hurt, says study author Sara Beck Fein, Ph.D., a consumer-science specialist at the FDA. "The more breast milk an infant received, the better," she says. "But as long as more than half of the feedings were breast milk, the risk of ear infections or diarrhea was not greatly increased."

Important long-term benefits include a reduced risk for asthma, allergies, childhood obesity and some childhood cancers. But there's more. "Data show very clearly that if an infant is exclusively breastfed for four months, the probability of childhood-onset diabetes is greatly reduced," says Ruth A. Lawrence, M.D., a pediatrician and neonatologist and director of the Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Study Center at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in Rochester, N.Y.

Indeed, the more scientists learn, the better breast milk looks. A study in The Lancet shows that teen-agers who were born preterm and breastfed for their first month of life had lower blood pressure than those who received formula. The difference was enough to reduce the risk for heart attack and stroke later in life. Observational studies indicate that these findings also may apply to children born full term, says study author Atul Singhal, M.D., a member of the Royal College of Physicians and the Medical Research Council's Childhood Nutrition Research Centre in London.

It may make your baby smarter. In addition to making your child healthier, breastfeeding may also make him smarter. In fact, the advantage that breastfeeding provides for brain development is striking, Georgieff says. A 1992 Lancet study reported as much as an eight-point increase in IQ among breastfed preemies. A 1999 analysis of 11 studies on childhood intelligence, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed more conservative but still-significant results: Full-term babies who were exclusively breastfed until at least 8 weeks of age gained three IQ points over infants who were formula-fed; preemies gained more than five points.

"The available data suggest that a three- to five-point increase in IQ would significantly increase academic performance, decrease dropout rates from school, and result in higher incomes and social adjustments," says study author James W. Anderson, M.D., professor of medicine and clinical nutrition at the VA Medical Center and at the University of Kentucky, both in Lexington.

You will benefit, too. Benefits for the nursing mother are just as impressive. The hormones released during breastfeeding curb blood loss post-delivery and help the uterus shrink back to size. And some nursing moms report that they burn calories like crazy, helping them back into their favorite jeans.

Long term, the nursing mother has a lowered risk for premenopausal breast cancer, the kind that strikes before age 50. The benefit begins to show with three to six months of breastfeeding and increases the longer that nursing continues. The risk for ovarian cancer is also reduced for women who breastfeed.

By now, you should have no question that breast milk is one power-packed beverage. So as you begin planning for your baby's future, make a commitment to nurse him for as long as you can. It will do both your bodies good.