Risks & Benefits of Breastfeeding

Human breast milk is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and several other professional and governmental organizations as the sole nutritional source for infants in the first six months of life.  In addition it is recommended that it be combined with other solid foods from six to twelve months of age.  The reasons for these recommendations are the well established benefits for both infants and mothers.  So let’s look at what these benefits are.

For the infant breast milk provides adequate nutrition alone for the first six months of life and promotes improved function of the gastrointestinal tract.  It helps prevent gastrointestinal infection because antibodies and white blood cells from the mother are present in breast milk.  As a result overall death and illness rates are lower in breastfed infants compared to those that are not.  In addition, fewer episodes of pneumonia, ear infections and diarrhea have been noted in many studies of breast fed infants.

There are several documented long term benefits to infants as well.  There are associations between longer periods of breastfeeding and a reduced risk of obesity, type-one diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease.

Finally, there is good evidence brain function is improved in breast fed infants since IQ, hearing and vision appear slightly improved versus infants who are not breastfed.  When thinking about benefits of breastfeeding we often forget there are also benefits to mothers who breastfeed.   First recovery from birth is often improved and weight loss enhanced by breastfeeding.

Two types of cancer in women, breast and ovarian, as well as some forms of heart disease are less common in women who have breastfed infants.  However we must realize that in addition to benefits there are risks to weigh when considering breastfeeding.  For example, some infections can be spread to infants from breast milk or from maternal skin and many medications a mother takes cross into breast milk.  In fact there are a couple of situations where breastfeeding should not be done.  These include mothers with active tuberculosis and those taking certain anti-cancer medications.

The bottom line is that the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the risk for the vast majority of mothers and infants.

This is Dr Thad Woodard.  Have a good day.

Dr Woodard is a physician and owner of Alaska Center for Pediatrics