Breastmilk is nature's perfect food for an infant: It's packed with all the nutrients they need, it offers microbes that can help create a healthy gut environment and it ensures lots of cuddly skin-to-skin time with mom. But the health implications go well beyond these obvious advantages. Here are six surprising ways that breastfeeding will benefit your baby.
Scientists have found more than 200 different types of sugar molecules in breastmilk—a marvel, considering that cow’s milk has only 30 to 50. But what’s really cool is how the composition of the sugars changes as the baby grows. At first, many of those sugars are not meant to feed the baby, but to help good bacteria in the baby’s gut thrive and establish a healthy microbiome. But after about a month, the diversity of sugars decreases and the milk develops more fat and nutrients to help the baby grow.
When you breastfeed, you transfer important illness-fighting antibodies to your baby, helping to build up their young immune system. But in recent years, researchers have been learning that the immune protection babies get from breastmilk doesn’t end there. A 2016 study from the University of California Riverside found that there are immune cells in breastmilk that, once inside the baby, teach the baby’s cells to develop defences against the same invaders that the mom has been exposed to.
If your baby is born premature, breastmilk has even more potential benefits. In a 2018 study, researchers found that, among babies who were born before 33 weeks gestation, those who were breastfed for at least three-quarters of the time had better brain connectivity than those who weren’t. Additional studies found that preemies who were given more breastmilk in the first month of life saw larger growth in certain areas of their brains. Other research has found that the breastmilk of moms to premature babies has a different composition than that of moms of babies who were born to term. Not only are the fats, sugars and proteins different, to help meet a preemie’s energy needs, but there are different genetic components that could influence metabolism to help a baby thrive.
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the leading cause of death in infants from a month to a year old. SIDS occurs when a baby dies suddenly in their sleep, seemingly with no explanation. But in recent years, researchers are learning more about ways to prevent SIDS, and breastfeeding is one of those ways (in addition to things like not smoking, putting baby to bed on their back and keeping the crib free of loose bedding and other items). In fact, a 2017 study found that breastfeeding for at least two months can reduce the risk of SIDS by half—even if you aren’t breastfeeding exclusively.
In a 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that breastfeeding for the first five months of life could actually influence a baby’s genes in a way that reduced stress. They measured the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of babies who were and weren’t breastfed, and found that those who were breastfed were plagued by less stress.
Eczema, the condition in which skin becomes red, itchy and inflamed, is one of the most mysterious skin conditions, with no one really knowing what causes it. But a 2017 British study found that, when mothers received support to breastfeed, their babies were 54 percent less likely to develop eczema as teens.
According to the World Health Organization, babies who are exclusively breastfed are at a reduced risk for being overweight or obese later in life. Right now, obesity is on the rise in kids, and protecting against obesity can go a long way towards protecting against other conditions, like type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea. Though no one knows exactly how breastfeeding reduces the risk for obesity, breastmilk does contain hormones and other compounds that help to regulate food intake and energy balance, which could have long-term implications.