What is breastfeeding?
Often referred to as ‘nursing,’ breast feeding is when a mum feeds their baby breast milk, typically directly from the breast. In the UK, mums are advised to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of their baby’s life, and continue for as long as they’re happy to do so, whilst gradually introducing a more varied diet.
Discover our full range of health benefit guides and read about eating for breastfeeding.
Top benefits for your baby
It’ll come as no surprise that mother nature created the optimal nutrition for your baby in the form of breast milk. Easily digested and supplying most of the nutrition babies need for their first six months, there are numerous health benefits.
1. Makes for a great start
The first milk known as colostrum is rich in protein, low in sugar and packed with protective antibodies and growth factors. This milk is especially important because it's designed to encourage a baby’s digestive tract to develop, supporting their ability to deal with bacterial and viral infections.
Colostrum is loaded with maternal antibodies, as well as immunoglobulin A (IgA). The latter being an important component of the immune system, that forms a defensive layer throughout a baby’s respiratory and digestive tracts.
2. It’s super-nourishing
Supplying almost everything a baby needs for the first six months of life, breast milk is rich in protein, vitamins, fats and sugars. Adapting as a baby grows, breast milk accommodates their changing nutritional needs. That said, there’s one nutrient which may be lower than needed – vitamin D.
In the UK the Department of Health recommends that pregnant and lactating women supplement with 10mcg of vitamin D, and that an exclusively breastfed baby receives a daily supplement of 8.5-10mcg vitamin D. This is because vitamin D tends to be low in the UK population, especially among certain ethnic groups. Food sources, which include oily fish and egg yolks, are limited, with most of our vitamin D being produced by the action of sunlight on the skin.
3. Good for the gut
As well as nutrients for the baby, breast milk contains beneficial bacteria called probiotics, as well as the fuel these bacteria need to thrive, known as prebiotics. Both probiotics and prebiotics help establish a healthy gut. Our knowledge in this area is expanding and it’s becoming clear that a healthy gut plays an important role in our long-term health. Studies suggest populating the gut with probiotic bacteria at this early stage in life may help reduce the incidence of atopic conditions including asthma.
4. It banks benefits
Breastfeeding may help to minimise a baby’s risk of a number of illnesses, including coeliac disease and atopic eczema, as well as ear infections, gastroenteritis, sudden infant death syndrome and childhood leukemia. What’s more, longer-term breastfeeding may protect your child as they grow into adulthood from diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
5. Weighty improvements
Breastfeeding promotes healthy weight gain and helps to prevent childhood obesity. Experts believe this may be down to the way breastfeeding influences a healthy gut flora. Delaying weaning until six months of age may cement these benefits for the future.
Interestingly, the food a mum eats while breastfeeding may influence their baby’s taste preferences during weaning and beyond. Women making healthier choices for themselves may be laying the foundations for a healthier future for their baby.
6. Boosting brain power
Breastfeeding may even contribute to a baby’s brain development, especially if a baby is pre-term. Studies suggest that breastfed babies have higher intelligence score and may be less likely to develop behavioural and learning disabilities.
Top benefits for mum
Breastfeeding not only helps to build a bond between mother and child, but offers health benefits for mum, too.
1. Helps with weight management
In the first three months after birth, a woman’s energy needs and appetite will increase, with some women experiencing some fat storage to accommodate milk production. After these initial months, many women lose weight as fat burning starts to increase, dropping as much as 0.5-1kg per month.
2. Better post-partum recovery
3. May improve future health
Breastfeeding may lower the risk of a number of illnesses, including breast cancer, ovarian cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Breastfeeding for more than a year, during a woman’s reproductive lifetime, is linked to a 28 per cent lower risk of both breast and ovarian cancers. Women who breastfeed may also benefit from a lower risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
4. May help beat the blues
Studies suggest that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of post-natal depression. This condition affects up to 15 per cent of new mums. One explanation is that breastfeeding promotes the release of oxytocin, a hormone which promotes relaxation, is stress-busting and supports a positive mood.
Is breastfeeding right for every mum?
It’s important to remember that every mother and baby are unique and breastfeeding isn’t for everyone. Most mums set out to breastfeed, but the reality is many will end up using some formula. If you’re unable to breastfeed or choose not to, then formula will provide all the nutrients your baby needs, including vitamin D.
In the UK, the composition of formula milks is strictly controlled, although there may be slight variations in ingredients between brands.
If you don’t breastfeed but your baby was born vaginally, then you can take comfort in the fact that your baby’s microbiota, those beneficial bacteria that play an important part in all-round health, will have benefited from a transfer of your own bacteria during birth.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that any amount of breast milk will have a positive effect, so if you have only been able to breastfeed for a short time, you will have already made a positive difference to your baby’s future. Speak to your midwife, doula or health visitor if you have any concerns.
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This article was last reviewed on 4 November 2021 by Kerry Torrens
Kerry Torrens is a qualified nutritionist (MBANT) with a postgraduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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