No matter how you choose to feed your baby, mealtimes nurture that growing bond between you and your little one. There’s physical closeness between the two of you and quality interaction.

And if you choose to breastfeed, chest feed or produce your own milk, you’ve likely heard there can be unique health and developmental benefits for you and your baby. What are those benefits exactly?

From illness and disease prevention to helping you bond with your baby, we will explain what years of research have proven about the benefits of breastfeeding and breast milk.

Nutritional benefits of breastfeeding your baby

Generally speaking, human milk is considered ideal nutrition for a baby’s growth and development. That’s because your body designs it especially for your baby. Research has shown us that breast milk is full of proteins, minerals and vitamins – everything your baby needs to thrive. It’s also easier for most babies to digest.

Breast milk composition

The three major parts of breast milk are water – to keep your baby hydrated – and lipids (fats) and carbohydrates to provide your baby with the calories they need. Breast milk also contains:

  • Proteins that help your baby grow and develop, boost their immune system and support brain development
  • Enzymes and sugars to help your baby’s digestive and immune system
  • Live cells that can help your baby’s organs develop
  • Hormones to help with your baby’s sleep patterns and eating habits
  • Amino acids that may help your baby sleep
  • Vitamins and minerals that benefit your baby’s teeth and bones
  • Growth factors that encourage healthy development in your baby’s intestines, blood vessels, nervous system and glands

The three phases of breast milk

Breast milk production starts during pregnancy, but once baby is born, your brain, body and baby work together to begin producing and increasing your milk supply.

In the first few days after your baby is born, your milk volume is lower, but its composition packs a punch. This is by design because your baby’s tummy is only about the size of a peanut M&M when they’re born. As you continually feed your baby at the breast, or pump and feed your baby from a bottle, your milk supply will begin to increase and change as your baby gets older. This process is generally represented by three phases of milk production:

  • Colostrum – This is that first type of milk that you’ll produce during the first few days. It plays in important role in your baby’s development because it’s high in antibodies and antioxidants, as well as full of nutrients. It’s usually thick and yellowish, and the colostrum phase typically lasts for 2-4 days after your baby is born. It also coats your baby’s intestines and stomach to protect them and prepare them for mature milk.
  • Transitional milk – After the colostrum phase, your milk supply will begin to increase to match your baby’s changing needs. So from 2-4 days to up to two weeks, you’ll begin producing transitional milk.
  • Mature milk – Around two weeks or so, mature milk replaces transitional milk.

Breast milk and antibodies

During the last few months of pregnancy, antibodies begin to pass from you to your baby through the placenta. These antibodies will help protect your baby once they’re born. This is important because their immune system will be brand new.

Breast milk can help continue the work of the placenta, passing antibodies from you to your baby to help build their immune system and protect them from illness and disease. Your body has built up antibodies against colds, flus and other diseases throughout your life. And when you nurse, you transfer these antibodies to your baby. Numerous studies have found that breastfed babies have lower rates of several different respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, including things like ear infections.

Also, even if you’re sick, you can continue to breastfeed or bottle-feed your baby breast milk – you’ll pass the antibodies to your baby from the infection your body is fighting.

Other health benefits of breastfeeding and breast milk for your baby

Various studies show that breastfed or breast milk-fed babies may have a lower risk for a range of conditions, too:

  • Obesity – Breastfed babies are more likely to have bacteria in their gut to help prevent obesity during their childhood and even later in life.
  • Type 1 diabetes – Studies have shown that the longer babies are fed breast milk and introduction to gluten is delayed, the less likely they’ll be to develop type 1 diabetes.
  • Asthma – The composition of breast milk supports healthy lung growth and improves lung function, lessening the risk for asthma later in life.
  • Allergies – If your baby is diagnosed with an allergy to something like milk, it’s safest to avoid it when breastfeeding. But because your baby eats what you do, breastfeeding can lessen the chance of your baby becoming sensitized to an allergen later in life.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – It’s not known exactly why, but studies have shown that babies exclusively fed breast milk for the first 6 months of their life, and then breast milk and baby foods from 6-12 months of age, had a much lower risk of dying from SIDS than babies who are not breastfed.
  • Digestive upset – Exclusively feeding a baby breast milk may decrease rates of diarrhea, constipation and gas in the first 6 months to year of a baby’s life.

Other child developmental benefits of breastfeeding and breast milk

Breastfeeding has also been linked to positive brain development in babies, such as:

  • A higher IQ later in childhood
  • Earlier language abilities
  • Enhanced motor skills
  • Better critical thinking skills and a better memory than is typical for babies of the same age
  • The skin-to-skin contact that comes with breastfeeding can help promote your baby’s mental well-being, giving them a sense of calm and helping them learn to trust

Breastfeeding has physical, mental and emotional benefits for you too. Whether you choose to breastfeed your baby or pump, lactating can lower your risk for a range of health issues, including:

  • Breast cancer – During pregnancy and breastfeeding, your body sheds breast tissue which can reduce your chances of developing breast cancer. Plus, hormonal changes can delay your menstrual period, reducing exposure to estrogen, which is a hormone that can promote breast cancer cell growth.
  • Ovarian cancer – Breastfeeding can prevent ovulation, which gives you less exposure to estrogen and cells that can cause cancer.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) – Breastfeeding and pumping promote higher levels of oxytocin, a “feel good” hormone, which can lead to lower stress and lower blood pressure.
  • Type 2 diabetes – Lactating can help your body process glucose better and lead to higher insulin sensitivity, which reduces blood sugar levels, lessening your chance of developing Type 2 diabetes.
  • Improve the transition from pregnancy to parenthood – Increased levels of oxytocin that can help contract your uterus to its pre-pregnancy size and help you bond with your baby.

Breastfeeding and lactation recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatricians

The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) currently recommends that infants, if possible, be fed human breast milk exclusively until they’re 6 months old. And around 6 months old, first foods like purees or infant cereals, can start being added to your baby’s diet in addition to breast milk. But depending on several factors, your baby’s doctor may recommend starting first foods earlier.

The AAP also supports continued breastfeeding for up to 2 years old and beyond, if it works for you and your baby. But after the 6-month mark, there’s no specific recommendation for the amount of time that a baby should be breastfed. According to the AAP, the longer you and baby breastfeed, the more likely you both are to receive the various health benefits.

Is it okay to choose not to breastfeed or chest feed?

Absolutely – recommendations are not a mandate. Choosing the feeding method that is best for your baby and you is a personal decision. From baby formula to donor breast milk, there are other options to providing nutrition to your baby that will help make sure your baby grows and thrives.

Know your options when feeding your baby

Whether you breastfeed or pump for two weeks or two years, or you decide to formula feed from the beginning, it’s important for you to make the best feeding decision for you and your baby’s health and well-being.

If you do choose to breastfeed or pump, finding the right lactation support can be really helpful for reaching your goals. Working with one of our lactation consultants or attending a support group with other breastfeeding parents can help you along your breastfeeding or lactation journey to successfully provide breast milk to your baby.