By Dr. Mercola
Breastfeeding rates continue to rise in the US. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, 79 percent of newborn infants started breastfeeding.1 This is wonderful news, as breastfeeding offers life-long health benefits, not just for the child, but for the mother as well.
Many women do not have access to the truth about breastfeeding and have been misled by infant-formula marketing to believe they must spend thousands of dollars a year to provide the best nutrition for their babies.
In reality (and barring any extreme exceptions such as certain transmittable diseases or drug use), breast milk is the best food for babies, period.
As reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), breastfeeding is the “normal way” of providing infants with the nutrients they need to grow and develop. They continue:
“Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large. Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by WHO as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth.
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.”
Breastfed Babies Grow into More Successful Adults
Proper nutrition in infancy has lasting effects on health and well-being. A study of nearly 6,000 babies followed from birth until they turned 30 years old found that those who were breastfed had increased intelligence, longer schooling, and higher earning as adults.2
Specifically, when compared to children who breastfed for less than a month, children who were breastfed for at least 12 months grew into adults who:
- Scored close to four points higher on IQ tests
- Attended school for a year longer
- Made 15 percent more money at the age of 30
The study’s lead author, Dr. Bernardo Lessa Horta from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, noted:3
“Our study provides the first evidence that prolonged breastfeeding not only increases intelligence until at least the age of 30 years but also has an impact both at an individual and societal level by improving educational attainment and earning ability.
What is unique about this study is the fact that, in the population we studied, breastfeeding was not more common among highly educated, high-income women, but was evenly distributed by social class.
Previous studies from developed countries have been criticized for failing to disentangle the effect of breastfeeding from that of socioeconomic advantage, but our work addresses this issue for the first time.”
In the study, the longer the children were breastfed, the better they tended to be doing as adults. Horta mentioned that babies breastfed for six months appeared to get most of the benefits of those who had been breastfed longer, but suggested “Mothers should breastfeed for as long as possible.”4
In the US, while breastfeeding rates start out strong, many women do not continue as long as recommended. In 2011, only 49 percent of infants were still breastfeeding at six months, and this dropped to 27 percent at 12 months.5 For comparison, in Sweden more than 98 percent of women initiate breastfeeding at birth, and 72 percent are still breastfeeding at six months.6
Breastfeeding Could Save 800,000 Children’s Lives Each Year
Worldwide, less than 40 percent of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed. According to WHO, “If every child was breastfed within an hour of birth, given only breast milk for their first six months of life, and continued breastfeeding up to the age of two years, about 800 000 child lives would be saved every year.”
They note multiple reasons why breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to boost and support your child’s health, including:7
- Breast milk contains antibodies to protect your baby from childhood illnesses, including diarrhea and pneumonia
- Promotes sensory and cognitive development
- Lowers the risk of overweight and obesity into adolescence and adulthood
- Lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Improves performance on intelligence tests
Breastfeeding offers benefits to mom, too, including a natural method of birth control (about 98 percent effective for the first six months). Women who breastfeed also have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer, lower rates of obesity and return to their pre-pregnancy weight faster.
By not breastfeeding, you and your baby miss out on these important benefits, which translates into increased risk of diseases and corresponding medical costs. One study estimated the increased medical costs of diseases caused by a lack of breastfeeding infants in their first six months of life to be $13 billion each year in the US alone. The researchers concluded:8
“If 90% of US families could comply with medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, the United States would save $13 billion per year and prevent an excess 911 deaths, nearly all of which would be in infants ($10.5 billion and 741 deaths at 80% compliance).”
Studies have also shown that breastfed babies gain added protection against:
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) Eczema Respiratory, ear, and other types of infections Heart disease Obesity Type 1 and type 2 diabetes Bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease Asthma and allergies Necrotizing enterocolitis among premature babies
Breastfeeding Encourages Optimal Gut Health in Your Baby
Breastfeeding helps ensure that your child’s gut flora develops properly right from the start, as breast milk is loaded both with beneficial bacteria and nutrient growth factors that will support their continued growth. It also has powerful components that will inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria and yeast.
Emerging research shows that bacteria are absolutely vital for human health, and imbalances in the human microbiome significantly contribute to chronic non-transmissible diseases. This is no small concern. Many diseases are directly impacted by your microbiome, which is why it’s so important to address your baby’s gut health both during pregnancy and from birth.
Researchers are also starting to understand how a child’s microbiome can play a role in autism. As noted by Scientific American:9
“Scientists have long wondered whether the composition of bacteria in the intestines, known as the gut microbiome, might be abnormal in people with autism and drive some of these symptoms. Now a spate of new studies10 supports this notion and suggests that restoring proper microbial balance could alleviate some of the disorder’s behavioral symptoms.”
Indeed, this is precisely what Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride surmised when she created the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Nutritional Program, which is designed to heal leaky gut by restoring the integrity of your gut lining. According to Dr. Campbell-McBride, in children with GAPS, toxicity flows from their gut throughout their bodies and into their brains. This continually challenges their nervous system, preventing it from performing its normal functions and process sensory information. One of the most important foundational elements of building a healthy gastrointestinal system for your child is to first eat a healthy, probiotic-rich diet while you’re pregnant, and then breastfeed after your child is born.
Do You Need Help Breastfeeding?
As the benefits of breastfeeding are beginning to be more widely recognized, at least in the US, there has been a growing stigma against moms who formula-feed their babies. If you’re a formula-feeding mom, please don’t feel attacked or judged! The information I’ve compiled here is meant to empower women with the information they need to make healthy choices. There are certain medical conditions that can prevent a woman from breastfeeding, however the majority of women are able to produce adequate supplies of milk and breastfeed successfully.
Often, those who believe they cannot may be misinformed, and believe they don’t have enough milk; this is a common misperception. However, in the vast majority of circumstances, all women have enough milk to breastfeed. The more the baby nurses, the more milk you will produce! Mom needs to drink plenty of water and seek optimal nutrition while nursing. The beginning weeks and months are critical in the process. As the La Leche League states:11
“Some mothers need to know that they will be able to breastfeed their babies in less than ideal or special circumstances. For example, many mothers have been able to provide their own milk for their premature or ill babies. Many mothers also continue to breastfeed after returning to work and, in most cases, provide sufficient milk.
In other cases, because of lack of knowledge or a poor start, a mother may be in a situation where her body is not producing enough milk. Increasing frequency of nursing, making sure the baby is latched on correctly, and offering both breasts at each feeding are some of the proven techniques that help most nursing mothers increase their supply.”
You should begin nursing as soon after birth as possible, as your baby’s sucking instinct will be very strong at that time, giving you the best chance of success. In the beginning, the milk that is produced is called colostrum — a thick, golden-yellow fluid that is very gentle for your baby’s stomach and full of beneficial antibodies. As your baby continues to nurse, your milk will gradually change in color and consistency from thick and yellow, to thinner with a bluish-white hue.
Newborns need to nurse at least once every two hours, for about 15 minutes or so on each side, but most do not adhere to any kind of strict schedule and feedings can vary in length. It is this frequent nursing that stimulates your breasts to produce increasing amounts of milk to keep up with demand. You may want to begin planning for successful breastfeeding before your baby is even born by taking a breastfeeding class while you’re pregnant. La Leche League is a terrific resource to contact for help whether you want to prepare beforehand or find you’re having trouble breastfeeding once your baby is born. But even many hospitals offer breastfeeding classes and lactation consultants who can help you.
Are There Healthy Alternatives to Breast Milk?
If you are a woman who is unable to breastfeed, or you have adopted your newborn, you may want to consider using donated breast milk. Unfortunately, there is a major downside to using breast milk from human milk banks that are now available in the US. The milk has been pasteurized, which means many of the essential immune-building elements will be decimated in the pasteurization process and your infant will fail to receive this crucial support when they need it the most.
So while human milk banks are a fantastic idea, the sad reality is that milk obtained from them — assuming it is pasteurized, as is standard process at most milk banks — is far inferior to breast milk that is unpasteurized. An alternative option to obtain unpasteurized breast milk straight from a donor may be to work with a physician or pediatrician who will work with you to find a safe milk donor, and will be involved in a screening process to ensure the milk is safe. If you’re unable to breastfeed or find a safe source of breast milk, please steer clear of commercial infant formulas as much as possible and definitely avoid all soy infant formula, as it is loaded with toxic elements like high doses of manganese and aluminum.
It is among the worst commercial food you could give your baby. It is likely that at some point in the future when all the health complications are fully appreciated, it will be removed from the market and banned. However, even milk-based infant formulas have been found to be contaminated with chemical additives (including some that are “organic!”). The next best alternative to breast milk is to make a healthy homemade infant formula. There may be others, but here is one recipe for homemade formula created by the Weston Price Foundation, which I believe is sound.