Breast milk is the ultimate first food for your baby and costs nothing – yet according to figures released this August 2018 for World Breastfeeding Week, only about 30% of South African babies under six months were exclusively breastfed last year. And while this is an increase from 20 years ago, it still puts us behind the minimum requirement of 50%, set by the World Health Assembly.
It was set for good reason – these are just some of the benefits for your baby of breast-feeding:
Breast milk has every nutrient your baby needs for the first six months of life, and in the perfect proportions. It actually evolves with your baby’s needs, starting as colostrum, which has loads of protein and healthy compounds, helping an immature gut develop in the first days after birth.
“It’s only at six months, when iron requirements increase, that moms need to start solids too,” says Cape Town certified lactation consultant and registered dietitian Catherine Day. Recent studies also suggest that breastfeeding babies make them more likely to eat vegetables later, as it exposes them to the flavour of vegetables thorough your milk.
When you are exposed to viruses and bacteria, you produce antibodies that are secreted into your milk and passed on to your baby. Colostrum and breast milk are particularly high in IgA, an antibody which helps your baby fight off infections. It coats and seals baby’s intestinal and respiratory tracts, preventing the attachment of viruses and bacteria, says Day.
As a result, a number of studies have shown that babies who are breastfed are less prone to diarrhoea, pneumonia, middle ear and other infections.
3. Better health
Exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months has been found to boost your baby’s overall health and reduce the risk of developing allergic diseases such as asthma and eczema, coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes and even childhood leukaemia.
4. Better oral development
Bottle-feeding requires relatively little energy from baby, while suckling at a breast requires working the jaw muscles and tongue. Studies suggest this is crucial for proper development of your baby’s jaw, bite, dental health and even airways, and may be the reason why breastfed babies have been found to have a lower risk of sudden infant death syndrome (Sids), habitual snoring and sleep apnoea.
5. Healthier weight
Breastfeeding also promotes optimal weight gain and reduces the risk for childhood obesity, says Day. This may be partly due to the development of different gut bacteria, which can influence fat storage, and partly to breastfed babies having higher levels of leptin than most formula-fed babies.
Leptin is a hormone that regulates both fat storage and appetite, helping babies to recognise when they are full, and setting them up for healthy eating patterns later in life. “Breastfed babies also have more beneficial bacteria in the gut,” Day says.
6. Possibly better intelligence
Some studies suggest that breastfed babies are less at risk of developing behavioural and learning problems, and that their IQ may be improved, due to the provision of long-chain fatty acids in breast milk.
Of course, not all mothers are able to breastfeed and no one should judge you if you can’t. But if you can possibly manage it, even if it means expressing and storing milk at work, breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months and then continuing as long as you can while introducing solids is the best way to go for baby – and for you.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images