Benefits of breastfeeding

Susan Fernandez November 11 2021

The science is clear: breastfeeding provides enormous health benefits for mothers and babies. Since the AAP ( American Academy of Pediatrics ) released its statement on breastfeeding in 2011, more research has shown even additional important benefits of breastfeeding to both women and babies.


The longer a baby breastfeeds, the greater the health benefit. At 6 months, there are significant but incomplete data that suggests that the immune protection provided by breastfeeding is working well against infections; at 12 months, all known benefits of breastfeeding continue to be protective. Breastfed infants get fewer infections overall, experience less respiratory illness (e.g., ear infections), diarrhea, and vomiting than do formula-fed infants—especially in those early weeks while they are mastering their new skills. Studies show that these benefits are seen in both developed and developing countries.

Important supplements

Breast milk contains all the nutrients an infant needs for growth, including fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes, and hormones. There is no need to add water to breast milk—it's clean when it leaves your body. Breastfeeding also controls how much food babies take in. Healthy full-term infants who are exclusively breastfed get everything they need nutritionally--no supplements or additional foods are needed until 6 months of age. These "practice feedings" prepare them for eating other foods later on.

In contrast with iron-fortified formulas, human milk continues to provide adequate amounts of iron longer-term (up to 12 months). In addition, about 1/3 of the iron in human milk is more easily absorbed by babies than the iron in some infant formulas. This means that an exclusively breastfed baby's stores of iron are built up slowly but surely, while formula-fed infants may not get enough iron because their iron requirements are being met quickly–and too much can be toxic.

Breastfeeding also helps protect babies from obesity later on. Researchers have found that children who were primarily breastfed had lower blood sugar levels after eating, demonstrating a reduced risk of high blood sugar and type 2 diabetes. Breastfeeding protects babies' delicate newborn gut health with its unique combination of nutrients, antibodies, and healthy bacteria. A special protein called lactoferrin found only in breast milk—helps prevent diarrhea and ear infections, and links to a lower risk of childhood asthma.

Immune protection

Numerous studies have shown that breastfeeding confers strong, specific immunity to infections in babies and children. These effects are particularly important for certain diseases such as otitis media ( ear infection ), respiratory syncytial virus ( RSV ), and bacterial meningitis. For example, one large study found that infants who were not breastfed had a 7-fold greater chance of needing hospitalization for RSV infection than those who were exclusively breastfed through 3 months.  

Breastfeeding also enhances the overall development of the baby's immune system and has been associated with higher activity and lower reactivity of certain white blood cells involved in maintaining defenses against illness or injury. In studies comparing breastfeeding vs non-breastfeeding, researchers found that breastfeeding was associated with greater resistance to illness following vaccinations. Furthermore, the benefits are not only for infants but also for older children and adults!

More milk - more IQ?

The benefits continue into childhood. Breastfeeding has been linked to higher IQ scores in children, as well as a reduced risk of childhood leukemia, type 1 diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and a rare digestive system cancer called Crohn's disease. The evidence is so strong regarding breastfeeding's role in preventing SIDS that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies be breastfed for at least the first 6 months if possible. In fact, research shows that exclusive breastfeeding reduces babies' risk of dying from SIDS by as much as 50%!

While some studies have questioned whether breastfeeding prevents allergies, these findings have been refuted by later analyses that show no link between breastfeeding and allergies. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of respiratory illnesses in babies, including otitis media (ear infections), respiratory syncytial virus infection, pneumonia, and bacterial meningitis.

Guard your baby

Breastfeeding is particularly important for preterm infants, who are at increased risk of breathing problems, jaundice, blood sugar difficulties, low iron levels, delayed development, behavior problems, poor vision, anemia, asthma, dental problems, celiac disease, digestive system diseases including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diabetes type 1/type 2 related to autoimmune responses triggered by formula feeding in genetically susceptible babies. Research has shown that exclusively breastfed preemies have better neurodevelopmental outcomes than do preemies who are not breastfed.

Benefits to a mother's health

Not only do mothers benefit from breastfeeding — but it also helps protect them against dangerous diseases. Research has found that breast cancer risk was reduced by about 5% for every year of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is also associated with a reduced risk of ovarian cancer, high blood pressure, heart attack. When women stop breastfeeding after their first baby, they are at increased risk of developing osteoporosis and may face higher future healthcare costs than those who continue to nurse.

There's more good news: research shows that women who have breastfed enjoy greater sexual satisfaction later on in life.

Benefits to the world

The benefits don't stop there! An estimated 1 billion people around the world don't have access to clean water--which means many babies are at high risk for water-borne diseases. Breast milk substitutes are often prepared with contaminated water, posing a serious health risk to babies who drink them. Exclusive breastfeeding reduces this exposure by 98%, saving more lives and improving the quality of life for countless people.

Breastfeeding also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The production of breast milk substitutes takes a large toll on the environment. If all moms in the U.S. were able to breastfeed exclusively for six months, it would save about 82 billion gallons of water per year! This is enough to supply drinking water to New York City homes three times over or take care of 80% of America's corn crop needs.

Don`t forget about the breastfeeding diet

Breastfeeding mothers need to eat more than moms who are formula feeding. This is because human breast milk is naturally low in calories and fat, while formula contains lots of added sugars and oils.

The best way for breastfeeding moms to get additional calories without adding too many pounds is by eating small, frequent meals throughout the day with higher protein foods like meat, seafood, eggs (and tofu ), nuts, seeds, dried beans (and lentils ), quinoa, whole grains like brown rice, oats, barley, bulgur wheat, couscous, etc., avocados. Soups made from legumes or broths also provide good nutrients; try mixing in some vegetables too!

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends drinking 13 cups (3 liters) of fluid daily to replace normal water loss in healthy nursing women.

Restricted products such as fish, eggs, poultry, shellfish, cow's milk, and soy should be avoided during the lactation period.

Don`t forget about diet for a baby. Breastfed babies may eat as often as they want and however much they want, which means no worrying about quantities. Breast milk contains everything your baby needs to grow and develop at exactly the right rate. Formula, on the other hand, doesn't contain enough iron for babies over 6 months old - which means up to 1 in 3 babies under six months old are iron deficient.

Check allergy reactions

Babies who are breastfed can be susceptible to allergies and food intolerances. The longer a baby is breastfed, the more likely it will develop an allergy to that food. This can lead to problems such as diarrhea, dermatitis (red, scaly skin), and colic.

A baby may have an allergy to a mom`s milk if she eats certain food which is not recommended during the breastfeeding period. To avoid this, moms should drink more fluids and eat lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, etc.

Lactose-free milk can be used instead of regular cow's milk, but it is nutritionally inferior to human milk. Check with your baby`s doctor before using lactose-free or soy formulas. It is better to consult a doctor before using any products that might alter the taste of your milk during breastfeeding.


Breastfeeding is a joy for both mothers and babies, with magnificent health benefits for all! Every moment spent cuddling close to your little one is rewarding, but it's also important to keep yourself healthy. Good nutrition can go a long way toward keeping you feeling your best--so tuck some of these breastfeeding diet ideas into your back pocket.