Comparing the benefits of breastfeeding versus formula feeding has been a hot topic not only among mothers, but throughout the medical community at large.
Much research has been done to obtain objective data that show breast truly is best. The American Academy of Pediatrics stands firm in its recommendation of “exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for one year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.”
So, why is breastfeeding more beneficial than formula feeding? The most well-researched and impactful benefits will be discussed below.
The most well-known benefit is arguably breast milk’s ability to help the body fight off infection more efficiently because of the presence of its immunoprotective compounds. Interestingly, the contents of mother’s milk evolve based on germs present in the environment of the mother and infant. The milk provides infants with the appropriate antibodies to prevent, delay and reduce diseases caused by these germs.
The severity of lower respiratory tract infections, as well as serious colds, ear and throat infections in the first year of life, is reduced by more than 60 percent in infants who are breastfed exclusively for more than four to six months.
The protective effects of breastfeeding for three to four months reduce the chance of developing atopic diseases such as asthma and eczema.
In addition, gastrointestinal tract infections are reduced by 64 percent, not only during breastfeeding months, but up to two months after breastfeeding has stopped.
Breastfeeding has been shown to decrease the likelihood of developing several diseases. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes and leukemia have all been associated with lower rates in those who have been breastfed.
If any breastfeeding occurred in infancy, this reduces the chances of developing obesity in adolescence and adulthood by as much as 15-30 percent.
In addition, feeding directly from the breast has been found to be most beneficial when compared to bottle feeding (even if the bottle contains expressed breast milk). This is because when taking milk from the bottle, there is increased bottle emptying, poorer self-regulation and more weight gain in later infancy compared with infants who feed directly from the breast.
Preterm infants face challenges both in early infancy and beyond that make breastfeeding even more beneficial to them than their full-term counterparts. Premature babies who receive breast milk have nearly a 60 percent reduction rate in the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis (a condition where part of the bowel dies off) and lower rates of severe retinopathy of prematurity (a serious disease of the eyes). In addition, they have lower blood pressures, lower LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and improved metabolism.
Studies suggest that babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) who have received breast milk have a greater score in intelligence tests as an older child and have greater amount of total brain volume. Not only in NICU babies, healthy babies alike have better neurodevelopmental outcomes.
The benefits of breastfeeding not only are beneficial to the infant but to the mother as well. There has been an association with decreased postpartum blood loss and decreased chances of developing postpartum depression. Bouncing back to that prepregnancy weight can also be achieved at a faster rate. On average, the body burns up to 500 calories a day while fully breastfeeding. In addition, there are lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer in cumulative lactation experience and a reduction in hypertension, hyperlipidemia, cardiovascular disease and diabetes for women who have had a cumulative history of 12-23 months of lactation.
As clearly evidenced from above, breastfeeding offers unique benefits to both infant and mother and should be viewed not as a lifestyle choice, but rather to optimize the health of infants and mothers in both the short and long term.