“The mother’s milk is the natural food, and nothing can fully take its place.”
— Jefferis GG, Nichols JL.
The Household Guide or Domestic Cyclopedia, Home Remedies for Man and Beast, 1894
The number one reason most women nurse is for the health of their child. Breast milk builds not only stronger babies, but its effects carry through to childhood and adulthood. Babies who are nursed suffer less often from infections, allergies, colic and diarrhea. Breast feeding helps offset obesity and enhance intelligence. Necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious condition among newborns, is six times more common among infants fed only formula. Below is just some of the research on how human milk helps the human child.
The Perfect Food
The most convincing argument for breast feeding a baby is human milk is the perfect food for infants. There is so much we don’t understand about the complexities of mother’s milk, that it’s impossible for any formula to live up to it. The nutrients found in each woman’s milk vary. The age and health of a mother can affect her milk. This is why it’s so important to eat well while nursing your baby. However, breast milk composition also changes throughout the day and as a baby grows. For example, a mother with a premature infant has different milk, more suited for her child’s unique needs, than a woman who gives birth to a full-term baby. Formula can never reproduce this made-to-order quality of mother’s milk.
As scientists have dissected breast milk into its individual vitamins and minerals and compared it to cow’s milk, they’ve pointed to breast milk’s inadequacies. Levels of zinc and iron are much lower in breast milk, for instance. However, these minerals are also absorbed better by babies when taken in human milk.
The nutritional superiority of breast milk is especially apparent in developing countries where good food isn’t as readily available as in the United States. For example, babies in the Chinese province of Hubei are taller and weigh more the longer they were breast fed. In fact, it can be said that nursed children are healthier in general, suffering less often from allergies, eczema, upper and lower respiratory infections, diarrhea, skin disorders and most other illnesses.
The Immunity Advantage
Breast fed babies have a health advantage over those given formula because of the immunity factors in human milk. Some researchers have gone so far as to call the human mammary gland or breast, an immunologic organ. It’s like Mother Nature guards her newborns with an infection-fighting elixir designed to safely carry them through the first few years of life.
So far, scientists have divided the not-completely-understood agents of human milk into three categories:
- Germ fighters
- Inflammation Soothers
- Immune System Enhancers
The antimicrobials, or germ fighters, are important because of the viruses, bacteria, fungi and other bugs they battle. Besides protecting babies against Salmonella, E. coli, Candida, giardia and botulism, to name a few, breast milk also shields infants from the diseases we fear most: polio, Haemophilus influenza and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus.
Aside from antimicrobials, there are substances in breast milk whose main job is easing inflammation. While these agents don’t kill germs, they do decrease the redness, heat, swelling and pain seen in some infections such as otitis media or middle ear infection.
Factors than enhance immunity are a miscellaneous assortment of compounds that perform a variety of functions. For instance, some accelerate growth of certain parts of the immune system. Researchers have noticed that people who were breast fed as infants are less likely to get diabetes, Crohn’s disease and some types of cancer. They’re not sure why this happens, but they think it’s due to a healthier, breast fed immune system.
No More Ear Infections.
For most parents, ear infections have become part and parcel of raising small children. This is a very good example of an illness that can be avoided or minimized by the nutritious and immune supporting qualities of breast milk.
A dozen years ago a Finnish scientist conducted a landmark study that showed how breast feeding protects babies against ear infections. Using 237 healthy children as her subjects, the researcher found that the longer an infant was nursed the fewer ear infections he had. This was particularly true when a child was breast fed exclusively, that is without any supplementation. She also noted the earlier a baby got an ear infection, the more likely the problem became chronic. Babies fed only formula during the first few months are most susceptible to this happening.
There are a few reasons why nursing affects ear infections. First there is the immune boosting factors found in human milk. Whether a baby is exposed to viruses or bacteria that cause diarrhea or middle ear infections, mother’s milk offers protection. Secondly, human milk contains substantial amounts of both DGLA and GLA, substances that help keep inflammation at bay.
When a baby is taken off the breast and given formula, she/he may develop an allergy or sensitivity to the cow’s milk in formula. Other times, cow’s milk merely irritates the Eustachian tube, the structure that connects the ear to the throat. It’s possible for milk to regurgitate into the middle ear when a very young baby drinks formula from a bottle. Although not advisable, formula fed babies are more likely to be propped up with a bottle, a position that invites ear infections to occur.
While nursing protects children from middle ear infection most dramatically during their first year, the effects last until they are three years old, perhaps older.
There is no doubt that mother’s milk keeps a baby physically fit. However, it’s surprising to learn that breast feeding also enhances a child’s intelligence.
A few years ago British researchers showed how feeding premature infants breast milk increased their IQs. This effect lasted at least until the child was a year and a half old (8). As a follow-up to this study, these investigators tracked 300 of these children until they were seven to eight years old. They found that breast milk’s influence on intelligence was not only maintained, but children who were nursed had IQs 8.3 points higher than formula fed babies.
While many different factors could explain this difference such as parenting skills, education and genetics, it looks like the nutritional value of human milk is the reason. Infants, especially those born prematurely, have brains and nervous systems that are growing at a rapid rate. It’s vital that babies receive adequate nutrients for proper neurological development. Breast milk provides this nutrition, some of which isn’t in formula.
This research also showed the more breast milk a baby drank, the smarter he was. No doubt, how long a mother nurses her child also influences his intelligence. While this study focused on premature babies, we know that infants born at term also benefit neurologically from human milk — albeit not to the same extent.
Finally, the babies in this study were fed mother’s milk through special tubes because they were unable to suckle. If premature babies were able to obtain milk directly from the mother, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the emotional warmth and closeness of nursing would add to the brain building nutritional qualities of mother’s milk.
What’s Good for Baby, is Good for Mom
Nursing your baby obviously benefits his health. But what about yours? There are several reasons why, as a mother, you should take advantage of the many pluses of breast feeding.
- Physical health. Nursing helps your uterus contract back to normal size.
- A healthy self image. For many women, nursing helps them lose their “baby” fat.
- Emotional health. Nursing brings you closer to your baby. Because nursing gives you lots of cuddling time with your child,
it can help you gain confidence as a parent.
- Financial health. Nursing is cheaper than formula.
- Stress and health. Breast milk is much easier to prepare than formula.
- Anon. Necrotizing enterocolitis and breast milk. American Family Practice 1991;43(5):1788.
- Worthington-Roberts BS et al. Nutrition in Pregnancy and Lactation. St. Louis: Times Mirror/Mosby, 1985.
- Taren D, Chen J. A positive association between extended breast-feeding and nutritional status in rural Hubei Province, People’s Republic of China. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1993;58:862-7.
- van den Bogaard C, van den Hoogen HJM, Huygen FJA, van Weel C. The relationship between breast-feeding and early childhood morbidity in a general population. Family Medicine 1991 Sept/Oct;23:510-15.
- Goldman AS. The immune system of human milk: antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating properties.
Pediatric Infectious Diseases Journal 1993;12:664-71.
- Saarinen UM. Prolonged breast feeding as prophylaxis for recurrent otitis media.
Acta Paediatrian Scandanavia 1982;71:567-71.
- Backon J. Prolonged breast feeding as a prophylaxis for recurrent otitis media: relevance of prostaglandins.
Medical Hypotheses 1984;13:161.
- Lucas A, Morley R, Cole TJ et al. Early diet in preterm babies and developmental status at 18 months.
- Lucas A, Morley R, Cole TJ et al. Breast milk and subsequent intelligence quotient in children born preterm.