Benefits to the Child in the First Year of Life
Breast milk is a unique combination of nutrients essential to a child’s health, and cannot be duplicated by any laboratory formula. It provides a number of health advantages beginning at birth and continuing throughout a child’s life. In fact, a large number of the health problems today’s children face might be decreased, or even prevented, by breastfeeding the infant exclusively for at least the first six months of life. The longer the mother breastfeeds, the more likely her child will get the health benefits of breastfeeding.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that mothers breastfeed for at least the first year of a child’s life and continue until they both feel they are ready to stop. In the first six months, the baby should be nourished exclusively by breast milk. The slow introduction of iron-enriched foods may complement the breastfeeding in the second half of the first year. Breast milk without supplements during the first six months reduces the possibility of food contamination due to tainted water or malnutrition as a result of over-diluted formula. Therefore, the child should be nursed without the interference of water, sugar water, juices, or formulas, unless a specific medical condition indicates otherwise. The AAP asserts that breast milk has the perfect balance of nutrients for the infant. It is by itself enough sustenance for approximately the first six months of life and should follow as the child’s staple throughout the first year.
A variety of studies have demonstrated that breastfeeding increases a child’s immunity to disease and infection:
- Many studies show that breastfeeding strengthens the immune system. During nursing, the mother passes antibodies to the child, which helps the child resist diseases and help improve the normal immune response to certain vaccines.
- Lower respiratory tract diseases: There is a 72 percent reduction in the risk of hospitalization due to lower respiratory tract diseases in infants less than 1 year of age who were exclusively breastfed for 4 months or more.
- Asthma: Breastfeeding for at least 3 months was associated with a 27 percent reduction in the risk of asthma for those without a family history of asthma and a 40 percent reduction for those with a family history of asthma.
- Childhood Leukemia: Breastfeeding for at least 6 months associated with 19 percent decrease in risk of childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia and a 15 percent decrease in the risk of acute myelogenous leukemia.
- Gastrointestinal infections: Infants who were breastfeeding had a 64 percent reduction in the risk of non-specific gastroenteritis compared with infants who were not breastfeeding.
- Acute otitis media (middle ear infections): Babies that were breastfed had a 23 percent lower incidence of acute otitis media than exclusively formula fed babies. Ear infections are a major reason that infants take multiple courses of antibiotics.
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS): The meta-analysis found that breastfeeding was associated with a 36 percent reduction in the risk of SIDS compared to babies who were not breastfed. Another study completed since the meta-anlaysis was done found a 50 percent reduction in the risk of SIDS as a result of breastfeeding.
- Another apparent benefit from breastfeeding may be protection from allergies. Eczema, an allergic reaction, is significantly rarer in breast-fed babies. A review of 132 studies on allergy and breastfeeding concluded that breastfeeding appears to help protect children from developing allergies, and that the effect seems to be particularly strong among children whose parents have allergies.
Benefits to the Child Later in Life
Some benefits of breastfeeding become apparent as the child grows older. Among the benefits demonstrated by research:
- Infants who are breast-fed longer have fewer dental cavities throughout their lives.
- Several recent studies have shown that children who were breast-fed are significantly less likely to become obese later in childhood. Formula feeding is linked to about a 20 to 30 percent greater likelihood that the child will become obese.
- Children who are exclusively breast-fed during the first three months of their lives are 34 percent less likely to develop juvenile, insulin-dependent diabetes than children who are fed formula.
- Breastfeeding may also decrease the risk of childhood cancer in children under 15 years of age. Formula-fed children are eight times more likely to develop cancer than children who are nursed for more than six months. (It is important to note that children who are breast-fed for less than six months do not appear to have any decreased cancer risk compared to bottle-fed children.)
- As children grow into adults, several studies have shown that people who were breast-fed as infants have lower blood pressure on average than those who were formula-fed. Thus, it is not surprising that other studies have shown that heart disease is less likely to develop in adults who were breast-fed in infancy. Significant evidence suggests that breast-fed children develop fewer psychological, behavioral and learning problems as they grow older. Studies also indicate that cognitive development is increased among children whose mothers choose to breastfeed.
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