Research shows that breastfeeding offers many health benefits for infants and mothers, as well as potential economic and environmental benefits for communities.
Breastfeeding provides essential nutrition. Among its other known health benefits are some protection against common childhood infections and better survival during a baby’s first year. Research also shows that very early skin-to-skin contact and suckling may have physical and emotional benefits.
Other studies suggest that breastfeeding may reduce the risk for certain allergic diseases, asthma, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. It also may help improve an infant’s cognitive development. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings.
It’s not only the baby who benefits, but also mom, too. Breastfeeding helps mother-baby bonding, because it stimulates the release of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which also helps shrink the uterus back to its pre-pregnancy size. Breast milk is convenient, needing no preparation, and is always available. Another important advantage: breastfeeding may reduce the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Breastfeeding can also help you shift the baby weight. Nursing uses up some of the fat you gained during pregnancy, so you can lose weight at the right pace for your body. Don’t worry if your weight goes down slowly, as your body will need some of this fat as your baby grows and demands more milk.
The benefits of breastfeeding don’t only extend to your baby. It turns out that breastfeeding can boost your health as well, since it:
- Lowers your risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Studies show that women who breastfeed have less risk of these cancers later in life.
- Helps you lose pregnancy weight. Because milk production burns about 300 to 500 calories a day, nursing mothers tend to have an easier time losing pregnancy weight in a healthy way—that is, slowly and without dieting. “Breast milk contains 20 calories per ounce. If you feed your baby 20 ounces a day, that’s 400 calories you’ve swept out of your body,” says Lawrence.
- Triggers your uterus to shrink back to prepregnancy size. In fact, in the first few weeks, you might feel mild contractions while you’re nursing.
- May lower your risk of osteoporosis. According to Lawrence, women who breastfeed have a lower risk of postmenopausal osteoporosis. “When a woman is pregnant and lactating, her body absorbs calcium much more efficiently,” Lawrence explains. “So while some bones, particularly those in the spine and hips, may be a bit less dense at weaning, six months later, they are more dense than before pregnancy.”
- Heals your body after delivery. The oxytocin released when your baby nurses helps your uterus contract, reducing post-delivery blood loss. Plus, breastfeeding will help your uterus return to its normal size more quickly—at about six weeks postpartum, compared with 10 weeks if you don’t breastfeed.
- Delays menstruation. Breastfeeding your baby around the clock—no bottles or formula—will delay ovulation, which means delayed menstruation. “Breastfeeding causes the release of prolactin, which keeps estrogen and progesterone at bay so ovulation isn’t triggered,” Kelly explains. “When your prolactin levels drop, those two hormones can kick back in, which means ovulation—and, hence, menstruation—occurs.” Even if you do breastfeed exclusively, your prolactin levels will eventually drop over the course of several months. Many moms who solely nurse will see their periods return between six and eight months after delivery, Kelly adds; others don’t for a full year.
- Can give you some natural birth-control protection. Granted, it’s not as reliable as the pill or most other forms of birth control, but breastfeeding can keep you from ovulating if you follow these guidelines: Your period must not have resumed; you must breastfeed at least every four hours around the clock; you must not give your baby any pacifiers, bottles or formula; and you must be less than six months postpartum. According to Kelly, nighttime feedings are the most important to the “lactation amenorrhea method,” so do not let your baby (or yourself ) sleep through a feeding. “Going long stretches at night without nursing seems to be directly responsible for the return of ovulation,” she says. Prematurely sleep training your baby can also hasten ovulation.
- Gives you closeness with your baby. Most moms cite this as the biggest benefit of breastfeeding. Nursing is something special the two of you share. You and baby exchange looks, noises, and cuddles during a nursing session, and communicate love to each other. “It’s empowering as a new mother to see your baby grow and thrive on your breast milk alone,” Lawrence says.
- Saves you money. Breastfeeding is essentially free. According to La Leche League International, the cost of formula can range anywhere from $134 to $491 per month. That’s $1,608 to $5,892 in one year! Even if you choose to buy an electric pump, a nursing pillow, and several nursing bras, you’ll still only spend about half the cost of a year’s supply of formula.
- The cost savings extend beyond your household, too. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, the United States would save about $13 billion per year in medical costs if 90 percent of U.S. families breastfed their newborns for at least six months.
- Gives you less time off work. Your baby will be ill less often, so that means fewer sick days for you.
- Cultivates friendships. “Breastfeeding helps cultivate relationships with other moms,” Kelly says. Whether it’s talking about parenting styles, nighttime feedings or engorgement, nursing allows women to forge positive postpartum relationships. Adds Kelly, “Women are supposed to be sitting together, nursing and taking care of babies.”
- Makes you more eco-friendly. Dairy cows, which are raised in part to make infant formula, are a significant contributor to global warming: Their belching, manure and flatulence (really!) spew enormous amounts of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.