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  • Breast milk is a perfect food for the human infant as it contains all the nutrients vital for healthy growth and development, plus beneficial microbes that promote a healthy gut microbiome
  • Prematurely born babies who received their mother’s milk had a 46 to 90 percent reduced risk of developing retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disease that in 10 percent of severe cases causes blindness
  • Nearly 17 percent of women who lactated for a month or less had atherosclerotic plaques, a risk factor for heart disease, compared with less than 11 percent of those who breastfed for 10 months or longer
 

The Amazing Benefits of Breastfeeding

January 02, 2016 | 276,584 views

By Dr. Mercola

Contrary to what infant formula companies want you to believe, infant formula cannot replace breast milk when it comes to protecting your baby's health and promoting healthy long-term development.

In fact, breastfeeding offers a long list of life-long health benefits not just for the baby but for mother as well.

Considering the fact that babies have been successfully raised on breast milk since the beginning of mankind, it stands to reason that breast milk is a perfect food in every way, providing a growing infant with everything it needs.

Modern science confirms this logic, and it is my hope that more women start reevaluating their choice to substitute breastfeeding with infant formulas.

Nursing even has health benefits beyond nutrition. As noted in the video above, breastfeeding helps expand your child's palate and allows his oral cavity to develop properly, which helps prevent breathing disorders such as snoring and sleep apnea, and all the health risks associated with such sleep disruptions.

Breast Milk Is a Complete Food 

As noted in the featured article in The Stranger:1

"Colostrum, the thick golden liquid that first comes out of a woman's breasts after giving birth ... is engineered to be low in fat but high in carbohydrates and protein, making it quickly and easily digestible ...

Mature breast milk, which typically comes in a few days after a woman has given birth, is 3 to 5 percent fat and holds an impressive list of minerals and vitamins: sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and vitamins A, C, and E.

Long chain fatty acids like DHA (an omega-3) and AA (an omega-6) — both critical to brain and nervous-system development — also abound in mother's milk.

The principal carbohydrate in breast milk is lactose, which provides copious calories and energy to fuel babies' relentless round-the-clock growth ...

Other sugars are also present, including some 150 oligosaccharides ... complex chains of sugars unique to human milk ... These oligosaccharides can't be digested by infants; they exist to feed the microbes that populate a baby's digestive system.

And speaking of microbes, there's a ton of them in breast milk ... much like yogurt and naturally fermented pickles and kefir, that keep our digestive systems functioning properly."

Besides healthy bacteria, breast milk is also loaded with nutrient growth factors that support the growth of beneficial bacteria, along with components that inhibit the growth of bad bacteria and yeast.

So breast milk really "primes" your baby's gut and promotes the colonization of a healthy microbiome. This, we now know, is critical for both short- and long-term health.

Another important nutrient in breast milk that is not found in infant formula is cholesterol, which provides other crucial components for the formation of healthy nerve tissues.

Breast Milk Offers Natural Immunity

As noted in the featured article,2 "Not nearly enough people know about this mind-blowing characteristic of breast milk: It changes daily based on signals from the baby." Indeed, it's not just vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fats that make breast milk far superior to formula.

For starters, breast milk also contains antibodies, or immune molecules, that provide the baby with natural immunity to illnesses that the mother is immune to. This is why breastfed babies tend to have far fewer colds than formula fed babies.

Breastfed babies also have fewer ear, respiratory, stomach, and intestinal infections than their formula-fed counterparts. Perhaps even more remarkable, when a newborn is exposed to a germ, he or she will transfer it back to the mother while nursing.

The mother will then make antibodies to that particular germ and transfer them back to the baby at the next feeding, thereby speeding up the recovery process and promoting future immunity toward the organism, should it be encountered again.

Breast milk also contains growth factors that significantly enhance your baby's gut and brain development, and even helps augment emotional perception and social development.3

It may also help prevent obesity later in life, and offers protection against diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

Variations in Breast Milk Linked to Differences in Infant Obesity

Previous research has shown that children of obese mothers have an increased risk of future obesity, but recent research4,5 suggests the composition of a mother's breast milk may be a far more significant factor, and it goes back to the oligosaccharides mentioned earlier.

Twenty-five pairs of mothers and infants were included in the study, which found that infant growth and obesity was linked to variations in the complex carbohydrates (milk oligosaccharides) in the mothers' milk.

At 6 months of age, children whose mother's milk contained higher levels of two particular oligosaccharides gained about 1 pound more body fat than those with lower levels.

Other oligosaccharides were found to be protective against obesity at 6 months, with one particular oligosaccharide being associated with a 1-pound lower fat mass.

According to the authors of this study, individual breast milk composition was more predictive of infant obesity than maternal obesity and pregnancy weight gain. Oligosaccharides are complex carbohydrates unique to breast milk.

Their primary function, besides providing energy for rapid growth, is to feed the microbes in your baby's digestive tract, and numerous studies have demonstrated that the makeup of your gut microbiome can have a significant bearing on your weight.

Please note that milk oligosaccharides are not found in infant formula. They're unique to breast milk. Sugars in breast milk and infant formula are NOT the same. Infant formulas typically have processed corn syrup and refined sugar as their largest ingredient, both of which are high in fructose.

In fact, many infant formulas have as much sugar as a can of soda. Fructose has NONE of the benefits of lactose and comes with a long list of adverse metabolic effects.6

There is a good deal of evidence that the addition of fructose to virtually every processed food on grocery store shelves today, including infant formula, is largely responsible for the explosion of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Research published in the journal Diabetes Cares hows that formula-fed babies are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes as adolescents.7

Breast Milk Helps Protect Preemies Against Blindness

Breast milk may be particularly important for preemies. Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is an eye disease that in 10 percent of severe cases causes blindness. More than half of preemies born before 30 weeks of gestation are afflicted, and up to 50,000 children around the globe go blind as a result of it each year. A recent analysis suggests this number could be reduced by more than 50 percent if all preemies were fed breast milk.

The analysis looked at five studies published between 2001 and 2013, and found that prematurely born babies who received their mother's milk had a 46 to 90 percent reduced risk of developing ROP. The wide gap was due to variations in the amount of milk they received, and how severe their condition was. As reported by NPR:8

"Infants who exclusively received breast milk had 89 percent reduced odds of severe ROP compared to infants who received any formula. Infants who received a mixture of breast milk and formula had roughly half the odds of developing severe ROP compared to infants exclusively receiving formula.

The analysis included a very large older study that had found no reduced risk for ROP from breast milk, but most infants in that study received less than 20 percent breast milk."

Breast milk has also been shown to reduce other complications associated with premature birth, including:

  • Necrotizing enterocolitis, a severe gastrointestinal disease
  • Blood infections
  • Lung disease

How Breastfeeding Benefits the Mother

In the short-term, nursing helps a woman shed that extra "baby weight" she put on during pregnancy. That alone is reason enough to breastfeed for many women, but the benefits go far beyond that. For example, recent research9 suggests breastfeeding may reduce a woman's risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

Starting in 1985, the cardiovascular risk factors in 846 women were recorded. Twenty years later, the women underwent ultrasound to measure the thickness of their carotid arteries. Thicker arteries are a risk factor for heart disease. As reported in The New York Times:10

"After controlling for many other risk factors, including race, blood pressure, B.M.I., age, and cholesterol levels, they found that the less time a woman breastfed, the thicker her carotid arteries. In addition, almost 17 percent of women who lactated for a month or less had atherosclerotic plaques, compared with less than 11 percent of those who breastfed for 10 months or longer.

Pregnancy makes the cardiovascular system work harder, increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease, and the authors suggest that lactation helps restore maternal physiological systems to their pre-pregnancy state."

Other studies11 have also shown breastfeeding benefits the mother by:

Enhancing maternal behavior through increased release of oxytocin, a hormone referred to as the "love hormone," or "bonding hormone" Acting as a natural birth control, as it suppresses ovulation, making pregnancy less likelyReducing diabetic mothers' need for insulin, as lactation lowers glucose levels naturally
Reducing the risk of women with gestational diabetes from becoming lifelong diabetics.

In one recent study,12 a woman's risk of progressing from gestational diabetes to type 2 diabetes was inversely associated with length and intensity of breastfeeding
Reducing your risk of endometrial, ovarian, and breast cancers, including hormone receptor negative tumors,13 which are a very aggressive form of breast cancerReducing your risk of metabolic syndrome

New Moms Need More Support

Hospitals also need to do a better job when it comes to promoting breastfeeding, and supporting women who want, but may struggle, to nurse. While some women cannot, for a variety of reasons, breastfeed, most can. More often than not, they simply need a little bit of guidance and support.

As noted in a recent CNN article,14 only 14 percent of babies born in the U.S. are born in hospitals offering breast-feeding support according to the global standard, which includes, but is not limited to, teaching nursing techniques and feeding cues, and allowing the father and baby to stay in the same room as the mother to facilitate round-the-clock nursing.

Perhaps even more egregious, most hospitals insist on giving infant formula to breastfed babies, sometimes against the mother's wishes, which can make breastfeeding more difficult. As a society (and employers especially), we really need to provide new moms with the support and the means to breastfeed. In some cases, it's a matter of knowing your rights. According to the Affordable Care Act, nursing mothers who work have the right to:

  • Reasonable break times to express breast milk during your work day, for up to one year after the birth of your child
  • A private place to pump other than a bathroom

Do You Need Help Breastfeeding?


The majority of women are able to produce adequate supplies of milk and breastfeed successfully. One common misperception is that you're not producing enough milk. It's important to realize that the more your baby nurses, the more milk you will produce.

This is why supplementing with formula can be detrimental to your milk supply. Nursing moms also need to drink plenty of water and seek optimal nutrition while nursing. The first few weeks and months are critical in the process.

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 League15 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.

Also find out whether your hospital of choice offers breastfeeding classes and lactation consultants who can help you. If it doesn't, you may want to select a hospital that offers greater support.

Healthier Alternatives to Infant Formula

I encourage you to do all you can to breastfeed your baby successfully, and exclusively, for at least the first six months; and longer if possible. This is one of the best gifts you can give to your child and the health benefits will last a lifetime. If you find yourself 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 U.S. 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 may be to work with a physician or pediatrician who is willing to help you find a safe milk donor, and who 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, your next best bet is to make your own 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.

Please steer clear of commercial infant formulas as much as possible. They're far too high in refined sugar for optimal health, and sets your child on the path of craving sugar.

Definitely avoid soy infant formula, as it is loaded with dangerously high levels of toxic elements like manganese and aluminum. Soy formula is among the absolute worst commercial foods you could give your baby. However, even milk-based infant formulas have been found to be contaminated with chemical additives (including some boasting the "organic" label), and is best avoided.

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