Health Benefits of Breastfeeding
For decades, scientists and health advocates have carried out research studies to prove the health benefits of breastfeeding. Results have shown that a great amount of oral and general health benefits for one’s infant can come strictly from breastfeeding. Some of the benefits include health, nutritional, immunologic, developmental, psychologic, and social benefits. Breastfeeding not only benefits the infant, but it also enhances the mother’s health.
Breastmilk, unlike formula, contains macronutrients and micronutrients that are highly beneficial for the infant. Some of the most abundant proteins in human milk include a-lactalbumin, lactoferrin, lysozyme, and serum album.1 Additionally, micronutrients include a multitude of vitamins, such as, vitamin A, B1, B2, B6, B12, and D. Since breastmilk provides all of these macro- and micronutrients, the infant is able to reap the benefits. Some of the short and long-term benefits of breastfeeding include a decrease in the incidence of infectious diseases, including bacterial meningitis, diarrhea, respiratory tract infection, otitis media, urinary tract infection, and late-onset sepsis in preterm infants.2
It has also been found that the thymus, a central organ of the immune system, is twice as big in breastfed infants compared to infants who were formula-fed at four months.3 Many researchers contribute the growth of the thymus in breastfed infants to IL-7 (a cytokine) and leptin (a hormone), two components that are found in human milk.3 The main role of the thymus is the development of the immune system. The thymus grows steadily in an infant’s early life, abruptly stops at puberty, then shrinks and gradually disappears during adulthood. During the early developmental years, bone marrow cells enter the thymus and mature into T cells, which spread to the entire body. There are multiple types of T cells, which are all vital the proper functioning of the immune system. There are T cells that recognize pathogens and kill them directly, instruct other cells of the immune system to kill, and direct the production of antibodies. Furthermore, the thymus also learns to recognize the body’s own tissue so that the immune system doesn’t attack it. Breastfeeding ultimately protects the infant from several autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes.
Including a significant increase in protection from infectious and autoimmune diseases, breastfeeding also decreases an infant’s risk for leukemia, Hodgkin disease, obesity, hypercholesterolemia, and asthma.2 Additionally, breastfeeding has also been linked to a slightly enhanced performance on tests of cognitive development.
Not only do infants benefit from breastfeeding and breastmilk, but mothers also reap the health advantages of breastfeeding. Some of the most important health benefits from breastfeeding and lactation include decreased postpartum bleeding and more rapid uterine involuation attributable to increased concentrations of oxytocin, decreased menstrual blood loss, earlier return to prepregnancy weight, and a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
These results all point to the conclusion that the benefits of breastfeeding for the mother and the child outweigh the consequences.