Benefits of breastfeeding

Recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg grabbed headlines when he publicly advocated breastfeeding for babies rather than feeding by formula. His pro-breastfeeding position is in line with the city’s new “Latch On NYC” initiative set to launch in September, which will require staff at participating hospitals to encourage new mothers to breastfeed while make it more cumbersome to request formula.

Ultimately it’s a mother’s decision whether to breastfeed or use baby formula and a case can be made for either option. However, there is a preponderance of research showing clear benefits of breastfeeding not only for baby, but for mothers as well. Here’s a quick rundown:

Not only is breast milk more easily digested than baby formula, it provides a baby with ideal nutrition. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months of a baby’s life and then continuing it while also introducing new foods. Babies who were breastfed exclusively without any formula have fewer infections, respiratory illnesses and a decreased risk of allergies.

The AAP also notes that breastfeeding may play a role in the prevention of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and it’s been thought to lower the risk of diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers.

Breastfeeding may also reduce a child's risk of becoming overweight or obese. An analysis of 17 studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that breastfeeding decreased a child's risk of becoming overweight as a teen or adult. The strongest link was seen in those who were exclusively breastfed, and even more so for babies who were breastfed longer.

Experts say breastfeeding may affect later weight gain in several ways. First, it seems breastfed babies develop healthier eating patterns because they develop a better sense of eating only until satisfied. Secondly, breast fed babies have been shown to have higher levels of leptin in their system; leptin is a hormone that plays an important role in regulating appetite. Babies that are fed formula typically gain weight more rapidly during the first weeks of life than breast fed babies and this has been strongly linked to obesity later on in life.

Breastfeeding offers significant health benefits for mothers as well.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reviewed more than 9,000 study abstracts and found that women who either didn’t breastfeed or stopped breastfeeding early on had an increased risk of postpartum depression. Also, research shows that breastfeeding triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with relaxation, and when asked, many mothers reported that nursing relaxed them.

Breastfeeding also burns calories, so losing pregnancy weight can be achieved faster as well as the uterus returning to its pre pregnancy size.  Another benefit: Breastfeeding has been linked to a decreased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer and might play a role in lowering a woman’s risk of osteoporosis.

If you are unsure about which feeding option is best for you, speak with a lactation consultant or visit the web site of the International Lactation Consultant Association. Childbirth educators, midwives, nurses, WIC offices, obstetricians, and pediatricians usually know experienced lactation consultants.

Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, is a nationally known registered dietitian based in New York and the creator of F-Factor - a proprietary high-fiber nutrition program for weight loss, wellness, and for treating various clinical conditions. Tanya authored the bestselling weight-loss book The F-Factor Diet, and her next book The Miracle Carb Dietwill be published in December 2013. She is the first dietitian with a national line of high-fiber foods, which are sold under the F-Factor name. Follow Tanya on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn, and OpenSky.