What science says about breast-feeding

Like many maternity topics, breast-feeding is somewhat controversial. Understandably so—motherhood is full of choices and nobody does it exactly the same, but most moms like to think they’re doing it right. After all, you’re making these decisions on behalf of your baby and your family, and you’re not doing it flippantly. All of the outside pressure to conform to “the right decision” can lead to unnecessary stress when you’re expecting, and what if you just don’t know what’s right for you and your baby yet?

READ MORE: Having a baby costs... $50,000?

Well, you probably know what your close friends and family think, and have listened to accounts of their experiences. You may also have read books, watched TV programming, and looked up advice online, all of which give you glimpses of what experts have to say—but what does the research back up? There’s a lot of research, and it’s not all one-sided. The good news is that nobody expects you to be a science expert, and if you’re looking for a little objective information, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s a rundown of the science on breast-feeding—no pressure added.

The Main Benefit of Breast-feeding Is to Baby’s Immune System

Currently, the U.S. government supports and encourages breast-feeding, and recommends breast-feeding for six months before any other foods are introduced. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issues an annual report card on breast-feeding with background, currently available data, and statistics on breast-feeding in each state. The World Health Organization (WHO) and American Academy of Pediatrics also promote breast-feeding based on a large body of research studies that have shown benefits to babies who have been nursed. Most of these studies can be boiled down to one thing: They show a boost to baby’s immune system, which can help fight everything from allergies to infection.

Breast-feeding mothers pass on beneficial antibodies and gut flora to their babies, which prepare young immune systems to fight future diseases. This has been well-established by research, to the point that several governmental bodies now encourage breast-feeding. Talk about an about-face: In the 1940s and 1950s, breast-feeding was considered less healthy than formula, and its popularity declined until the 1970s. This phenomenon has been attributed to laws that required formula makers to only market to physicians, who then encouraged formula use to mothers in hospitals after childbirth.

READ MORE: Hospital or Home Birth? How to Choose

Breast-feeding Is Not for Every Mother

Even though baby formula has had a mixed history with physicians, products currently on the market aren’t unhealthy or bad for babies, which is good for many mothers. That’s because some women just can’t breast-feed, and there are others who shouldn’t: women who have HIV or tuberculosis, require certain medications for their health, or have an infant with the rare disorder galactosemia, which prevents the baby from digesting a sugar in the milk. For some women, breast-feeding is extremely painful or stressful, or the milk just won’t come. There are professionals who can help in some of these cases, but not all.

READ MORE: Finding a Quality OB/GYN

The Link Between Breast-feeding and IQ Might Not Be the Milk

Some studies you may have heard about have claimed that breast-fed kids have higher IQ scores down the road. However, those studies only show correlation, not causation, and there is no biological compound in breast milk known to influence intelligence. Recent research conducted at Brigham Young University by sociologists suggests that it’s not actually the breast-feeding itself, confirming results from earlier studies. The researchers followed 7,500 mothers and their children for five years and discovered that the smartest kids had mothers who started reading to them at 9 months of age and responded to their children’s emotional cues at a higher rate than other mothers. Something else they had in common? These women were also more likely to breast-feed their babies.

Breast-feeding May Be Protective Against Breast Cancer

Many studies have been conducted on how breast-feeding affects babies later in life, but far fewer address how it affects mothers. However, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studied 60,000 women and found that those with a family history of breast cancer were 59% less likely to develop the disease themselves if they had breast-fed. Another study done on breast cancer survivors showed that among nonsmoking women, those who breast-fed were diagnosed an average of 10 years later than those who did not, suggesting a partial protective benefit.

The Jury Is Still Out on Breast-feeding and Obesity

Many studies have examined breast-feeding and obesity, but as with those addressing intelligence, any links found were correlational. That is to say, no component of breast milk has been identified as influencing obesity, although some researchers believe it exists and has yet to be pinpointed. Other studies have looked at whether breast-feeding influences obesity in young children, and have found no relationship whatsoever or mixed results. Studies are currently underway to examine the relationship between breast-feeding and obesity in adults, but no long-term link has been found.

READ MORE: How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

Lacie Glover writes for NerdWallet Health, a website that empowers consumers to find high quality, affordable health care and insurance.