There are many ways in which babies and mothers benefit from breastfeeding. For both baby and mom, breastfeeding can promote healthy bonding and skin-to-skin contact. Breast milk is also rich in nutrients and antibodies that promote the baby's growth and protect the baby from many infections in their first year of life while their immune system is developing.
"The mom's body makes exactly what the baby needs," says Denise Wilks, a Main Line Health certified midwife who practices at Riddle OB/GYN Associates.
According to Wilks, women are often told that breastfeeding is best, but the truth is that breastfeeding isn't for everyone — and that's okay. The most important thing is to have a well-fed, healthy baby, and breastfeeding isn't the only way to achieve that.
Breastfeeding benefits for mom
The main benefit, according to Wilks, is the oxytocin that's released during breastfeeding, as the hormone is known to increase feelings of relaxation, trust and bonding. Oxytocin also helps control contractions in the uterus, which reduces the risk of postpartum bleeding. Many women will feel contractions in their uterus during breastfeeding, which is a sign that the baby is doing a good job of latching, says Wilks.
Breastfeeding is an incredible way to promote skin-to-skin contact, which supports the baby's physical and developmental health. For example, the mom's body can monitor the temperature of the baby, so if the baby is cool, the mom's body will warm up to make the baby warmer. "What a mom's body can do for her infant is amazing," Wilks adds.
Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of developing future health conditions, including breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Plus, breastfeeding is convenient and can be done anywhere at any time.
Breastfeeding benefits for baby
The first breast milk that's produced by the mammary glands — known as colostrum — is packed with nutrients and antibodies that can protect the newborn from infectious diseases. "[With] women that are breastfeeding for the first year of life, the risk of the baby getting sick actually decreases because they're constantly being exposed to those antibodies," Wilks says. Research suggests that the antibodies and white blood cells in breast milk can provide protection against influenza and COVID-19, along with tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (from the TDAP vaccine).
Breast milk promotes a healthy gut in the baby and decreases the risk of stomach infections and abdominal issues. "Any antibodies that the mom has in her system are going to help fight infections for the baby and make the baby a lot healthier," Wilks notes. Breastfeeding can also reduce the baby's risk of obesity, asthma, and developing various allergies.
Breastfeeding helps the baby bond to the mother as well. "It's very comforting for the mom, and it's very comforting to the baby," Wilks adds.
Benefits to breastfeeding alternatives
Wilks recommends learning about breastfeeding before the baby's due date. There are many breastfeeding classes available that are geared toward new moms. Lactation consultants can also help moms and babies that are struggling to latch.
While most healthcare systems have lactation consultants on staff, Wilks also recommends working with a lactation consultant when you are back home to ensure the mom and baby have long-term success with breastfeeding. La Leche League offers virtual and local breastfeeding courses and support groups. Wilks also recommends finding a pediatrician that will provide support with any breastfeeding questions and concerns.
All too often, women are told that breastfeeding is best, but that message can neglect the mom's health and wellbeing. Wilks wants women to understand that it's okay if breastfeeding isn't for you. Many people who try breastfeeding will find it painful or uncomfortable. "I want to acknowledge that, and I also want to support their decision-making and how they're best going to take care of their baby — because, ultimately, that's what they need to do," she says.
If a mom is feeling stressed and overwhelmed about breastfeeding and it's taking away from how she is bonding with her baby, she may want to consider alternatives. Babies can reap the same benefits from formula, and skin-to-skin contact, which promotes bonding for both the baby and mom, is also possible while bottle feeding. "The best thing for them is a well-fed baby — however we get there, we get there," Wilks says.
If you've been struggling with breastfeeding or lactation, Wilks recommends reaching out to your healthcare provider so they can provide guidance and additional resources.