Human milk is uniquely formulated by nature to give vulnerable fragile babies the best chance for survival. Its benefits for the baby are not matched by any formula, despite of the major manufactures touting that they have duplicated the breast milk. Breast milk provides babies with living cells and antibodies that their body is unable to produce for weeks and months after birth. Breast milk also contains unique chemicals to nurture brain development, which mostly occurs in first five years of life.
The immune system of infants is not fully developed at birth, making them highly susceptible to infections. Breast milk contains nearly all the essential nutrients that babies needs to be healthy, including those that benefit their immune system like antibodies, immune factors, enzymes, and white blood cells. These substances protect infants against a wide variety of diseases and infections not only while they are breastfeeding but in some cases long after they are weaned.
Respiratory infections and ear infections (also called otitis media) are the most common infections in early childhood. Three out of four children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday .
Exclusive breastfeeding during the first 6 months is associated with about 43% reduction in ever having an acute ear infection in the first 2 years of life . In addition, babies who are breastfed for 6 months or longer have reduced risk of lower respiratory tract infections not only during their infancy but also in their preschool years .
An infant’s intestine faces many challenges, including adaptation from a sterile intra-uterine environment to one in which a diverse microbial population outnumbers human cells 10 to 1. During this critical phase, breast milk act as a part the baby’s innate immune system and protects the gastrointestinal (digestive) tract .
Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a bacterial infection of the wall of the intestine (bowel). NEC occurs in nearly 10 percent of premature infants but is rare in full term infants .
Meta-analyses of 4 randomized clinical trials performed over the period from 1983 to 2005 support the conclusion that breastfeeding preterm babies reduces the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis by about 58 percent .
Image credit: Pregnancy, Birth and Baby, the Australian Government
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the leading cause of death among babies under 1 year of age. In the US, more than 3,500 babies died of SIDS in 2016, the last year for which such statistics are available .
Though the cause of SIDS is unknown, a few things are known to decrease the risk. One of them – breastfeeding for at least two months, could cut the risk of SIDS nearly in half .
Image credit: Safe to Sleep, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term for two conditions, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, that are characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract .
Several studies have confirmed that breastfeeding in infancy protects against the development of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis .
Image credit: Rush University Medical Center
Image credit: Consumer Reports
Although cancer in children is rare, it is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy among children in the US. Leukemias and lymphomas are the two most common types of the pediatric cancers .
Image credit: The National Pediatric Cancer Foundation (NPCF)
The majority of research studies examining breastfeeding and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes suggest that children who breastfeed for longer than 6 months have better cognitive outcomes, lower risk of developing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and lower risk of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder .
In addition, a large, randomized Promotion of Breastfeeding Intervention Trial provided evidence that after controlling sociodemographic and clinical variables (including maternal age, education, number of other children at home, cesarean delivery, maternal smoking during pregnancy, birth weight, gestational age, etc.), prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding improves cognitive development as measured by IQ and teachers’ academic ratings at age 6.5 years [25, 26].
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