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Why breastfeeding is important
Breastfeeding protects babies
- Early breast milk is liquid gold – Known as liquid gold, colostrum (coh-LOSS-trum) is the thick yellow first breast milk that you make during pregnancy and just after birth. This milk is very rich in nutrients and antibodies to protect your baby. Although your baby only gets a small amount of colostrum at each feeding, it matches the amount his or her tiny stomach can hold. (Visit How to know your baby is getting enough milk to see just how small your newborn’s tummy is!)
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While formula-feeding raises health risks in babies, it can also save lives. Very rarely, babies are born unable to tolerate milk of any kind. These babies must have soy formula. Formula may also be needed if the mother has certain health conditions and she does not have access to donor breast milk. To learn more about rare breastfeeding restrictions in the mother, visit the Breastfeeding a baby with health problems section. To learn more about donor milk banks, visit the Breastfeeding and special situations section.
- Your breast milk changes as your baby grows – Colostrum changes into what is called mature milk. By the third to fifth day after birth, this mature breast milk has just the right amount of fat, sugar, water, and protein to help your baby continue to grow. It is a thinner type of milk than colostrum, but it provides all of the nutrients and antibodies your baby needs.
- Breast milk is easier to digest – For most babies — especially premature babies — breast milk is easier to digest than formula. The proteins in formula are made from cow’s milk and it takes time for babies’ stomachs to adjust to digesting them.
- Breast milk fights disease – The cells, hormones, and antibodies in breast milk protect babies from illness. This protection is unique; formula cannot match the chemical makeup of human breast milk. In fact, among formula-fed babies, ear infections and diarrhea are more common. Formula-fed babies also have higher risks of:
Some research shows that breastfeeding can also reduce the risk of Type 1 diabetes, childhood leukemia, and atopic dermatitis (a type of skin rash) in babies. Breastfeeding has also been shown to lower the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
- Necrotizing (nek-roh-TEYE-zing) enterocolitis (en-TUR-oh-coh-lyt-iss), a disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract in preterm infants.
- Lower respiratory infections
- Type 2 diabetes
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Mothers benefit from breastfeeding
- Life can be easier when you breastfeed – Breastfeeding may take a little more effort than formula feeding at first. But it can make life easier once you and your baby settle into a good routine. Plus, when you breastfeed, there are no bottles and nipples to sterilize. You do not have to buy, measure, and mix formula. And there are no bottles to warm in the middle of the night! You can satisfy your baby’s hunger right away when breastfeeding.
- Breastfeeding can save money – Formula and feeding supplies can cost well over $1,500 each year, depending on how much your baby eats. Breastfed babies are also sick less often, which can lower health care costs.
- Breastfeeding can feel great – Physical contact is important to newborns. It can help them feel more secure, warm, and comforted. Mothers can benefit from this closeness, as well. Breastfeeding requires a mother to take some quiet relaxed time to bond. The skin-to-skin contact can boost the mother’s oxytocin (OKS-ee-TOH-suhn) levels. Oxytocin is a hormone that helps milk flow and can calm the mother.
- Breastfeeding can be good for the mother’s health, too – Breastfeeding is linked to a lower risk of these health problems in women:
Experts are still looking at the effects of breastfeeding on osteoporosis and weight loss after birth. Many studies have reported greater weight loss for breastfeeding mothers than for those who don’t. But more research is needed to understand if a strong link exists.
- Type 2 diabetes
- Breast cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Postpartum depression
- Mothers miss less work – Breastfeeding mothers miss fewer days from work because their infants are sick less often.
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Breastfeeding benefits society
The nation benefits overall when mothers breastfeed. Recent research shows that if 90 percent of families breastfed exclusively for 6 months, nearly 1,000 deaths among infants could be prevented. The United States would also save $13 billion per year — medical care costs are lower for fully breastfed infants than never-breastfed infants. Breastfed infants typically need fewer sick care visits, prescriptions, and hospitalizations.
Breastfeeding also contributes to a more productive workforce since mothers miss less work to care for sick infants. Employer medical costs are also lower.
Breastfeeding is also better for the environment. There is less trash and plastic waste compared to that produced by formula cans and bottle supplies.
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Breastfeeding during an emergency
When an emergency occurs, breastfeeding can save lives:
- Breastfeeding protects babies from the risks of a contaminated water supply.
- Breastfeeding can help protect against respiratory illnesses and diarrhea. These diseases can be fatal in populations displaced by disaster.
- Breast milk is the right temperature for babies and helps to prevent hypothermia, when the body temperature drops too low.
- Breast milk is readily available without needing other supplies.
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More information on Why breastfeeding is important
Read more from womenshealth.gov
Explore other publications and websites
A Well-Kept Secret — Breastfeeding's Benefits to Mothers (Copyright © La Leche League International) - This publication provides information on the benefits of breastfeeding for the baby and the mother. It includes information on physiologic effects and long-term benefits.
Benefits of Breastfeeding (Copyright © Linkages Project) - This fact sheet briefly describes the different health benefits that breastfeeding has for mothers and babies.
Breast Milk Associated With Greater Mental Development in Preterm Infants, Fewer Re-hospitalizations - This news release describes a study which found that premature infants fed breast milk had greater mental development scores at 30 months than did infants who were not fed breast milk. Also, infants fed breast milk were less likely to have been re-hospitalized after their initial discharge than were the infants not fed breast milk.
Breastfeeding - This website briefly describes the benefits of breastfeeding and what to do if you have trouble breastfeeding, and it links to information from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development about breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding and Maternal and Infant Health Outcomes in Developed Countries - This report explains the effects of breastfeeding on short- and long-term health outcomes in developed countries. It concludes that a history of breastfeeding is associated with a reduced risk of many diseases in infants and mothers from developed countries.
Breastfeeding vs. Formula Feeding (Copyright © Nemours Foundation) - This publication discusses the benefits of breastfeeding and the pros and cons of bottle-feeding, as well as answering common breastfeeding questions.
Can Breastfeeding Prevent Illnesses? (Copyright © La Leche League International) - This publication explains how breastfeeding can prevent some illnesses in your baby.
Does Breastfeeding Reduce the Risk of Pediatric Overweight? - Did you know that breastfeeding your child can reduce the chances that he or she will be overweight? This booklet explains the research behind this discovery and answers some of the questions you may have about the benefits of breastfeeding.
Feeding Low Birthweight Babies (Copyright © Linkages Project) - Low birth weight babies are at risk for developing diabetes and heart disease later in life, but good feeding practices can lower the risk. This fact sheet describes how you can reduce the risks of disease with good breastfeeding practices.
Feeding Your Newborn (Copyright © Nemours Foundation) - This publication offers information on breastfeeding and bottle-feeding. It covers the advantages of breastfeeding, limitations of both breastfeeding and bottle-feeding, and possible challenges you may encounter.
Got Mom (Copyright © American College of Nurse Midwives) - GotMom.org was created by the American College of Nurse-Midwives to provide breastfeeding information and resources for mothers and families. It has information on why breast milk is best, dispels common misunderstandings about breastfeeding, and provides a list of resources that can help women and families with breastfeeding.
MedlinePlus - MedlinePlus provides access to extensive information about specific diseases and conditions. It also offers links to dictionaries, lists of hospitals and physicians, health information in Spanish and other languages, clinical trials, and other consumer health information from the National Institutes of Health.
The Comprehensive Benefits of Breastfeeding (Copyright © American College of Nurse Midwives) - This publication lists the beneficial effects that breastfeeding has on mothers, babies, and society.
What Are the Benefits of Breastfeeding my Baby? (Copyright © La Leche League International) - This publication discusses the benefits of breastfeeding, including the benefits for the baby, the mother, employers, and the environment.
What are the Benefits of Breastfeeding my Toddler? (Copyright © La Leche League International) - This publication describes how breastfeeding your toddler can help his or her ability to mature and understand discipline, as well as provide protection from illness and allergies.
What's in Breast Milk? (Copyright © American Pregnancy Association) - Proteins, fats, and vitamins are some of the substances that make up breast milk. This publication describes the composition of breast milk and what makes it the best source of nutrition for your baby.
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Content last updated August 04, 2010.
Resources last updated August 01, 2010.
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