Breast milk is the “food of life” and is considered the best nutrient source for babies born at any gestational age. It not only helps babies grow healthy and strong, it can protect them from many illnesses during and beyond the first year after birth.
Benefits of Breastfeeding
- Breast milk is best for babies because:
- Breast milk has hormones and the right amount of protein, sugar, fat and most vitamins to help the baby grow and develop; although in very premature infants certain vitamins and nutrients need to be added.
- Breast milk has antibodies that help protect the baby from many illnesses. Antibodies work with white blood cells in the body to fight off infection.
- Breast milk has fatty acids, like DHA (docosahexanoic acid), that help optimize a baby’s brain and eye development. It may lower the chances of sudden infant death syndrome.
- Breast milk is easy to digest. A breastfed baby may have less gas and belly pain than a baby who is fed formula.
- Breast milk changes as the baby grows so the baby gets exactly what is needed at the right time. For the first few days after giving birth, the mother produces a form of breast milk called colostrum. Colostrum has nutrients and antibodies that a baby needs in the first few days of life. It changes to breast milk in three to four days.
- Breast milk is always clean and ready when the baby wants to eat. A mother’s body makes as much breast milk as her baby needs.
- Breast milk also helps establish the intestinal bacterial flora that help make vitamins (vitamin K); assist in digestion of carbohydrates (think “natural culture yogurt”); in recycling bile acids helpful in fat absorption and in “exercising” the maturing immune system as it learns to adapt to the external world to fight infection and limit allergic illnesses (the “hygiene” hypothesis).
But breastfed babies (especially premature newborns) often need vitamin supplements because breast milk doesn’t have enough vitamin D during periods of rapid growth. Vitamin D helps make bones and teeth strong and helps prevent a weak bone disease called rickets. Also, mothers who are vegans and breastfeed may need extra vitamin B12. Lastly, while iron content is low, it is more readily absorbed and does not always need to be supplemented. Mothers should speak with their baby’s pediatrician or a lactation consultant to define their child’s specific needs.
Not all women can breastfeed for medical and other reasons; some medical conditions and certain viral infections can make breastfeeding harmful for a baby. Women who think they may have a condition that makes it unsafe to breastfeed should talk to a health care provider.
The March of Dimes, which is celebrating 75 years of helping to provide families the joy of a full-term, healthy baby, encourages all new mothers to breastfeed their baby. About 4 million babies are born each year in the United States, and all have benefitted from the March of Dimes life saving research and educational programs during this important transition to extra-uterine life.
Edmund F. La Gamma, M.D. is Professor of Pediatrics, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and is the Chief of the Division of Newborn Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics of the New York Medical College. He is The Director of The Regional Neonatal Center of the Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital of Westchester Medical Center. He is also a member of the board of directors of the March of Dimes Northern Metro division of the New York chapter.