Monday, August 10, 2009

Breastfeeding: What are the benefits for baby?

Breastfeeding: What's in it for baby? Copyright 2009 - Michelle Loy, MPH, MS, RD - Go Wellness
I must admit that I used to look at breastfeeding advocates and think to myself, "Oh, she's one of those people." You know, those people who are just fanatical over breastfeeding. However, once I really learned about the host of health benefits resulting from breastfeeding, I could no longer deny the advocate in me! I do hope that once you read about some of these benefits, that you, too, will see where I'm (and they're) coming from. In continuation of my series on the what, why, and how of breastfeeding, today's blog post is dedicated to the first of two posts on the why.

How does baby benefit from breastfeeding?
  • Human milk provides superior nutrition. Since it's made for humans by humans, how could one go wrong? The nutrient composition of breast milk is almost perfectly tailored for an infant with the exception of a few nutrients, such as Vitamin D and fluoride. In addition, breast milk contains other factors that also enhance the digestion and absorption of nutrients, such as calcium, iron, and zinc! And I can't stop there. The other remarkable thing about human milk production is that the composition of the milk actually changes according to baby's needs across the feeding, across the day, and across the infant's lifespan! Amazing! So how does it work? During an actual feeding, the initial milk ejected, the foremilk, contains a higher concentration of protein and water and less fat. This helps satisfy a baby's fluid and protein needs earlier on in the feeding. Then about 1/3 of the way through the feeding the milk contains a higher percentage of fat, which enhances satiety and helps meet energy needs. The composition changes across the day by consisting of a higher percentage of foremilk in the morning while containing a higher percentage of hind milk in the afternoon and evening. It's speculated that this helps the infant stay more alert earlier in the day while helping the infant rest better in the evening due to the nutrient content of the two types of milk. Finally, the milk changes across the lifespan to meet the infant's different nutrient needs at different stages of growth. And this process cannot be duplicated by any human milk substitute!
  • Human milk contains factors that provide immunological protection. You could call it baby's first immunization! In approximately the first two weeks of life, almost everything the mother has developed an immunity to is passed on to the baby through maternal antibodies. Human milk also contains a multitude of other factors that weaken or destroy harmful bacteria or help generate antibodies. And it's these very factors that have not been duplicated in formula to this day. On the other hand, there are also compounds called bifidus factors that actually promote the growth of friendly bacteria in the infant's GI tract, which, in turn, prevents more harmful bacteria from establishing there.
  • Breastfeeding decreases the risk for allergies, especially among those with a family history of allergies. First of all, when an infant is exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life, there is a delay in the introduction of other foods that helps reduce exposure to potential food allergens, such as cow's milk or soy protein from formula. In addition, the colostrum helps coat and protect the infant's GI tract from penetration by allergens and other foreign bodies that contribute to allergies.
  • Breastfeeding lowers the risk of childhood obesity. The choice between breast milk or formula affects the baby's earliest sensory experiences with food. Infants fed breast milk are exposed to a greater variety of food flavors via the maternal diet whereas those who consume formula are exposed to one flavor. This could affect an infant's acceptance of new foods, like vegetables, later on down the road. So this could mean having a less picky eater as a result of breastfeeding. It is also theorized that breastfeeding helps the infant stay in tune with his/her hunger and satiety cues better. It is conceived that the breastfed infant is better able to control the flow of milk from the breast whereas a bottle-fed infant receives formula more quickly and easily, which could lead to overfeeding. Therefore, the bottle-fed baby gets used to a greater feeling of fullness and begins to more easily override satiety cues. While our understanding of how it is that breastfeeding helps reduce the risk of childhood obesity is still unclear, there is still plenty of research supporting the fact that breastfed infants are less likely to experience childhood obesity than their formula-fed counterparts.
  • Breastfeeding improves cognitive development. Many studies support an association between breastfeeding and improved cognitive development through early childhood; however, it's still unclear if there are factors other than the actual breast milk contributing to this relationship (i.e., genetics, environment). Breast milk is naturally rich in the essential fatty acids DHA and arachidonic acid, which help promote brain development, and researchers suspect that these fatty acids could play a pivotal role in the link between breastfeeding and cognitive function. The effect may be even more pronounced in pre-term infants since large amounts of these fatty acids accumulate in the brain during the last trimester, and because premature infants are born early, they miss out on the full transfer of these vital nutrients.
  • Breastfeeding reduces the risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is the leading cause of death for infants during the first year of life, and several studies suggest that exclusive or partial breastfeeding reduces the risk for SIDS. In fact, a recent case-control study detected a 50% reduction in risk of SIDS for breastfed infants.
  • Breastfeeding may lessen the risk for diabetes later in life. In comparison to formula-fed infants, breastfed infants tend to have a lower risk for developing both type 1 and type 2 diabetes later in life, especially those infants at higher risk of developing the diseases. It appears that infants who are breastfed for a longer period of time and those who are exclusively breastfed have lower risk than infants who are not breast fed at all, experience shorter duration of breastfeeding, and/or encounter early introduction of formula or cow's milk. Due to some study limitations, such as parent recall of breastfeeding practices and other potentially confounding factors, more research needs to be conducted in this area.
  • Breastfeeding may decrease the risk for cardiovascular disease later in life. Several studies suggest a protective effect of breastfeeding on certain cardiovascular risk factors, such as atherosclerosis, blood pressure, cholesterol profile, along with other cardiovascular risk factors. Again, there are limitations to the results of such studies due to parental recall of breastfeeding practices and other potentially confounding factors.
Preliminary studies suggest a large number of other health benefits related to breastfeeding, but I hope that this helps increase your understanding of some of the health-related benefits of breastfeeding for the infant.  Stay tuned for my next post regarding the advantages of breastfeeding for mom!

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