How breastfeeding benefits your baby

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. 

Ear infections and respiratory tract infections

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 [1].

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 [2]. 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 [3].

Gastrointestinal tract infections

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 [4].

Breastfeeding reduces the incidence of nonspecific gastrointestinal tract infections, and this effect lasts for 2 months after cessation of breastfeeding [56].

Necrotizing enterocolitis

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 [7].

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 [6].


Image credit: Pregnancy, Birth and Baby, the Australian Government

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

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 [8]. 

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 [9]. 

Image credit: Safe to Sleep, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

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 [10].

Several studies have confirmed that breastfeeding in infancy protects against the development of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis [11].


Image credit: Rush University Medical Center


Childhood obesity often leads to adult obesity, which causes many health problems including heart disease, diabetes, and even early death. A growing body of research suggests that breastfeeding offers protection against obesity not only in childhood but also later in life [121314].


Image credit: Consumer Reports


According to the World Health Organization, the number of people with diabetes has risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014 [15]. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of developing Type 1 as well as Type 2 diabetes [161718].


Childhood leukemias and lymphomas

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 [19].

Research suggests that breastfeeding reduces the risk of childhood leukemia and lymphomas [20212223].

Image credit: The National Pediatric Cancer Foundation (NPCF)

Neurodevelopmental outcomes

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 [24].

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 [2526].


[1] Ear infections. MedlinePlus, the National Institutes of Health. Page last updated on 6 March 2018. Retrieved on July 23, 2018.
[2] Bowatte, G., Tham, R., Allen, K., Tan, D.J., Lau, M.X., Dai, X., & Lodge, C.J. (2015). Breastfeeding and childhood acute otitis media: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta paediatrica, 104 467, 85-95.
[3] Tromp I, Kiefte-de Jong J, Raat H, et al. Breastfeeding and the risk of respiratory tract infections after infancy: The Generation R Study. Cormier SA, ed. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(2):e0172763. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0172763.
[4] Jakaitis BM, Denning PW. Human Breast Milk and the Gastrointestinal Innate Immune System. Clinics in perinatology. 2014; 41(2):423-435. doi:10.1016/j.clp.2014.02.011.
[5] Ip S, Chung M, Raman G, Chew P, Magula N, DeVine D, Trikalinos T, Lau J. Breastfeeding and maternal and infant health outcomes in developing countries. Evid Rep Technol Assess (Full Rep). 2007;(153):1-186.
[6] Ip S, Chung M, Raman G, Trikalinos TA, Lau J. A summary of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s evidence report on breastfeeding in developed countries. Breastfeed Med. 2009;4(Suppl 1):S17-30.
[7] Necrotizing enterocolitis. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Retrieved on July 23, 2018.
[8] Sudden Unexpected Infant Death and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Data and Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page last updated: June 28, 2018. Retrieved on July 24, 2018.   
[9] John M.D. Thompson, Kawai Tanabe, Rachel Y. Moon, Edwin A. Mitchell, Cliona McGarvey, David Tappin, Peter S. Blair, Fern R. Hauck. Duration of Breastfeeding and Risk of SIDS: An Individual Participant Data Meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 2017; e20171324 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2017-1324.
[10] The Facts About Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. New York, NY: Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America; 2014.
[11] L. Xu P. Lochhead Y. Ko B. Claggett R. W. Leong A. N. Ananthakrishnan. Systematic review with meta‐analysis: breastfeeding and the risk of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2017 Nov;46(9):780-789. doi: 10.1111/apt.14291. Epub 2017 Sep 11.
[12] Christopher G. Owen, Richard M. Martin, Peter H. Whincup, George Davey Smith, Derek G. Cook. Effect of Infant Feeding on the Risk of Obesity Across the Life Course: A Quantitative Review of Published Evidence. Pediatrics May 2005, 115 (5) 1367-1377; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2004-1176.
[13] Mayer-Davis EJ, Rifas-Shiman SL, Zhou L, Hu FB, Colditz GA, Gillman MW. Breast-Feeding and Risk for Childhood Obesity: Does maternal diabetes or obesity status matter? Diabetes care. 2006;29(10):2231-2237. doi:10.2337/dc06-0974.
[14] Uwaezuoke SN, Eneh CI, Ndu IK. Relationship Between Exclusive Breastfeeding and Lower Risk of Childhood Obesity: A Narrative Review of Published Evidence. Clinical Medicine Insights Pediatrics. 2017;11:1179556517690196. doi:10.1177/1179556517690196.
[15] Fact Sheet- Diabetes. The World Health Organization, 15 November 2017. Retrieved on July 24, 2018. 
[16] Gouveri, E.; Papanas, N.; I. Hatzitolios, A.; Maltezos, E. Breastfeeding and Diabetes. Current Diabetes Reviews, Volume 7, Number 2, March 2011, pp. 135-142(8). 
[17] Rosenbauer, J. , Herzig, P. and Giani, G. (2008), Early infant feeding and risk of type 1 diabetes mellitus—a nationwide population‐based case–control study in pre‐school children. Diabetes Metab. Res. Rev., 24: 211-222. doi:10.1002/dmrr.791.
[18] Patrícia Feliciano Pereira, Rita de Cássia G. Alfenas, Raquel Maria A. Araújo. Does breastfeeding influence the risk of developing diabetes mellitus in children? A review of current evidence. Jornal de Pediatria, Volume 90, Issue 1, 2014, Pages 7-15, ISSN 0021-7557,
[19] Cancer in Children and Adolescents. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved on July 24, 2018.
[20] Bener, Abdulbari & F Hoffmann, G & Afify, Z & Rasul, Kakil & Tewfik, I. (2008). Does prolonged breastfeeding reduce the risk for childhood leukemia and lymphomas?. Minerva pediatrica. 60. 155-61.
[21] Kwan ML, Buffler PA, Abrams B, Kiley VA. Breastfeeding and the risk of childhood leukemia: a meta-analysis. Public Health Rep. 2004 Nov-Dec;119(6):521-35.
[22] Amitay EL, Keinan-Boker L. Breastfeeding and Childhood Leukemia Incidence A Meta-analysis and Systematic Review. JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(6):e151025. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1025.
[23] Rudant J, Orsi L, Menegaux F, et al. Childhood acute leukemia, early common infections, and allergy: The ESCALE Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2010;172(9):1015–1027.
[24] Bar, Sari & Milanaik, Ruth & Adesman, Andrew. (2016). Long-term neurodevelopmental benefits of breastfeeding. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 28. 1. 10.1097/MOP.0000000000000389.
[25] S Kramer, Michael & Aboud, Frances & Mironova, Elena & Vanilovich, Irina & Platt, Robert & Matush, Lidia & Igumnov, Sergei & Fombonne, Eric & Bogdanovich, Natalia & Ducruet, Thierry & Collet, Jean-Paul & Chalmers, Beverley & Hodnett, Ellen & Davidovsky, Sergei & Skugarevsky, Oleg & Trofimovich, Oleg & Kozlova, Ludmila & Shapiro, Stanley. (2008). Breastfeeding and Child Cognitive Development: New Evidence From a Large Randomized Trial. Archives of general psychiatry. 65. 578-84. 10.1001/archpsyc.65.5.578.
[26] Horta BL1, de Sousa BA, de Mola CL. Breastfeeding and neurodevelopmental outcomes. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2018 May; 21(3):174-178. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0000000000000453.

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