Breastfeeding versus formula feeding – this is a very controversial and emotionally-fueled topic that is often presented in opposition. While this article is focused on the benefits of breastfeeding, I wish to open with the acknowledgement that breastfeeding is not always easy or possible and can present with many challenges including, but not limited to, inadequate emotional and educational support, reduced prolactin levels, malnutrition, perceived difficulties, surgery that interferes with the milk glands and ducts, contraindicated medications, intense physical pain, premature birth and social pressures and isolation.
As a nutrition scientist, I am interested in the physiology, psychology, nutrition and overall benefits of breastfeeding. With this information at hand, many women will try to breastfeed. With my first bub on the way, I will also be striving to breastfeed. At the same time, it is critical not to be harsh on yourself if it doesn’t quite work out the way you plan or envision. It is truly important to be flexible when you are expecting and seek assistance if you are ever in doubt. If you are concerned about breastfeeding in the future, it can help to find certitude in our body’s natural ability. Lactation is an automatic physiological process that our bodies are designed to undergo supported by our amazing hormones and neurological system. Equipping yourself with plenty of information about breastfeeding and developing support networks is also a propitious pursuit.
The following is a fairly comprehensive description of the many wonderful benefits of breastfeeding. At the end of this article you will discover or rediscover how truly miraculous human breast milk is and how amazing the female body is for creating this vital life source.
1. Human breast milk contains all of the energy, vitamins, minerals and fluids in their optimal proportions and with high bioavailability to support the growth and development of your baby.
2. It supplies immunoglobulins – that is, antibodies to help develop and support your baby’s underdeveloped immune system. The immunological support provided by breast milk can help protect your baby from immediate and future illness, which is one key area where infant formulas fall short. The colostrum produced in the first few days post-birth also supplies disease-fighting white blood cells and antibodies that inactive pathogenic bacteria and encourage the growth of ‘friendly’ bacteria in your baby’s gastrointestinal tract. Together this may explain why breastfed infants experience fewer respiratory and gastrointestinal infections than formula-fed infants.
3. It contains the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid) and arachidonic acid (AA, an omega-6), which are important for the development of the eyes, brain and nervous system. Not all formulas contain these essential fatty acids. Instead, they may contain α-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA). These are the precursor molecules for synthesising DHA and AA. However, infants have not fully developed the enzymes required to make this conversion and hence, DHA and AA are supplied naturally via the mother’s breast milk.
4. Contrary to popular belief, breast milk is not sterile! Human breast milk actually contains important beneficial bacteria that help populate the developing neonatal gastrointestinal tract. The origins of these bacteria remain elusive. In a recent study, scientists confirmed that the bacteria in breast milk can also be found in infant faeces . We may someday see modified infant formula that contains specific probiotics and/or prebiotics to bring its health implications closer to those of breast milk.
5. Before your baby even encounters their first experience with food, their taste buds are primed to accept particular flavours. During breastfeeding, particular aromas, spices and flavours eaten by the mother are transmitted to the infant. This phenomenon can facilitate the transition to solid foods and impact food preferences.
6. When a baby is sick, a mother’s breast milk may help them to recover quicker by supplying specific antibodies for the baby’s infection. This is truly a marvelous phenomenon of breastfeeding!
7. Breastfeeding may help your baby to develop sleep cycles! The hormones that travel through the mother’s circulation are reflected in her breast milk and transferred to the baby. Sleep cycles are largely governed by the hormones, cortisol and melatonin. During the day, cortisol levels rise and achieve their peak, whilst melatonin, the “sleep hormone,” dominates in the evenings and throughout the night. When your baby feeds, they receive a corresponding dose of these hormones, which may help them to develop their sleep-wake cycles.
8. Having been breastfed is associated with a reduced risk of becoming obese across the lifespan. Biologically plausible explanations for a protective effect of breast-feeding include; 1) hormonal mechanisms such as lower insulin levels, 2) the presence of bioactive molecules in breast-milk that could regulate fat cell growth, and 3) a lower proportion of protein compared with formula. Another proposed mechanism is that breast-fed infants typically eat until they feel full; whereas formula-fed infants are often encouraged to finish the bottle and may eat beyond satiety. Breast milk also contains the hormone leptin, which helps regulate the amount of milk breastfed babies consume . Taken together these factors may have longer term behavioural and hormonal consequences, which influence weight and the risk of obesity.
9. Breastfeeding may offer protection against the development of allergic reactions, such as asthma, recurrent wheezing and skin rashes, as reported by several scientific studies and meta-analyses .
10. Breastfeeding may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and an unfavourable cholesterol profile later in life [4, 5].
11. Breastfeeding can have emotional benefits by creating a feeling of security for the newborn and promoting closeness between the mother and baby. Formula feeding can also have this beneficial effect .
13. Breastfeeding immediately after birth can help the uterus to return to its smaller, pre-pregnancy state, as well as help to reduce blood loss.
14. A final and financial benefit is not needing to purchase formula.
Breastfeeding offers numerous benefits to both mother and baby. A mother’s breast milk contains a powerful mix of diverse components that are uniquely tailored to the growth of her infant. The composition of the breast milk also changes with both the duration of feeding and across the lifespan. Support during breastfeeding is especially important. Whilst most mothers are aware of the benefits of breastfeeding and wish, hope and try their best to breastfeed, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. In such cases, infant formula is the recommended alternative as it is specifically designed for the needs of young, rapidly growing infants.
 Salminen S, et al. Early gut colonisation with Lactobacilli and Staphyloccocus in infants: the hygiene hypothesis extended. J Ped Gast Nutr 2015. Epub 2015 Jul 29.
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 Stuebe AM, et al. Duration of lactation and incidence of maternal hypertension: a longitudinal cohort study. Am J Epidemiol 2011; 174(10): 1147-58.
 Stuebe, AM, et al. Duration of lactation and incidence of myocardial infarction in middle to late adulthood. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2009; 200(2): 138.e1-8.
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 Luan NN, et al. Breastfeeding and ovarian cancer risk: a meta-analysis of epidemiologic studies. Am J Clin Nutr 2013; 98(4): 1020-31.