The benefits of breastfeeding
Worldwide there is unanimous agreement about the importance of breastfeeding. It is reflected in the World Health Organization’s recommendation that mums breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of the baby’s life, with continued breastfeeding in addition to solid foods at least for the first two years. Breastfeeding, however, is advantageous beyond its nutritional benefits; it protects the baby against infection, regulates and enhances the physiological systems of the mum and baby, and facilitates bonding between them.
Benefits for mums
Physical contact between the mum and baby during the early postpartum period helps prolong the lactation period and may help adapt the mum’s gastrointestinal tract to increased energy demands during lactation. Breastfeeding increases the mum’s attention to her baby’s needs, accelerates uterine involution after birth and reduces the risk of haemorrhage. It also helps the mum regain her pre-pregnancy weight and decreases the risk of ovarian and breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Breastfeeding provides long-term anti-stress effects; during each breastfeed mums experience a reduction in their blood pressure and cortisol levels and lower increases in cortisol in response to physical stress compared with mums who bottle-feed. Breastfeeding mums are more likely to be calmer and more social than other women of similar age who are not breastfeeding or pregnant. In fact, mums who have newborns skin-to-skin immediately after birth spend more time with their babies, interact more with them during breastfeeding and breastfeed for longer.
Benefits for babies
Breast milk provides both optimal nutrition (fat, lactose, protein and macronutrients) to support baby development and growth, and complete protection (biochemical and cellular components) against infection. Term babies who receive human milk have significant improvements in their nutritional status, gastrointestinal maturation and neurodevelopment, as well as less infection and chronic disease, compared with formula-fed babies. Preterm babies who receive human milk experience additional benefits, including a reduced risk of necrotising enterocolitis (NEC), enteral feed intolerance, chronic lung disease, retinopathy of prematurity, neurodevelopmental delays and re-hospitalisation.
Developmentally, breastfeeding benefits babies in a number of ways, including improved neurodevelopment and behaviour ratings and a reduced risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in adulthood. Additionally, breastfeeding promotes normal oral facial growth in babies, including improved dentition, perioral and masseter muscle activity and palatal growth. It also lowers the risk of otitis media.
The act of breastfeeding also facilitates bonding between the mum and baby. Skin-to-skin contact and tactile stimulation of the nipple, including the act of sucking, result in the release of oxytocin, a critical component of the milk ejection reflex, that creates a bond between the mum and baby. Oxytocin release increases blood flow to the mum’s chest and nipple area, increasing the temperature of the skin and creating a warm and nurturing environment for the baby.
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