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Updated 07 October 2015

The health benefits of breastfeeding

Breastfeeding has many great health benefits for both baby and mother. Here's why most moms should try to breastfeed for at least six months or longer.

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Health benefits for babies

Breastfed babies gain the following health advantages if they are breastfed for at least 6 months or longer:

a) Immediate benefits:
  • Fewer infections and increased resistance to infectious diseases, including:
  • Bacterial meningitis, which can occur when bacteria migrate into the brain and spinal cord causing infection (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2013)
  • Bacteraemia - particularly community-acquired bacteraemia in less advantaged children which may be caused by a variety of pathogens, but mainly Salmonella species
  • Diarrhoea, which is extremely prevalent in Africa and can have life-threatening consequences
  • Otitis media or ear infections
  • Infections of the respiratory tract (colds, pneumonia, bronchitis, croup)
  • Urinary tract infections (bladder and kidney infections)

b) Long-term benefits:
 
Reduction in disease in later life. Children who were breastfed:
  • Have less asthma
  • Have a reduced tendency to develop food allergies possibly because children are exposed to allergens in mother’s milk so that they produce their own antibodies at an early stage and/or also benefit from the mother’s antibodies
  • Are less likely to develop Hodgkin disease (a type of cancer) and lymphoma
  • Tend to have less high blood cholesterol in adulthood
  • Develop leukaemia less frequently
  • Are less susceptible to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Are less prone to overweight and obesity
  • Are less likely to suffer from types 1 and 2 diabetes
  • Are likely to have better cognitive skills and fewer learning problems

If mothers breastfeed their babies, they are indeed doing their children a great deal of good. For example if a breastfed infant is less likely to become overweight and obese in later life, this will also reduce his or her risk of developing all the diseases that are linked to obesity, such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, joint problems and gout, sleep apnoea, gallbladder problems and infertility (PCOS).

Benefits for breastfeeding mothers
 
Infants are not the only ones who benefit from breastfeeding. Mothers who take the time and effort to breastfeed also gain advantages:
 
  • Immediate reduction in bleeding after childbirth, which is why newborns are put to the mother’s breast just after birth
  • Promotes the fast return of the uterus to its prepregnancy shape and size
  • Reduction in the amount of blood lost through menstruation during lactation. Some women stop menstruating during the breastfeeding period, but they should keep in mind that they may still conceive despite the general belief that women cannot conceive another baby while breastfeeding.
  • Women who breastfeed have less of a risk of developing the so-called ‘hormonal’ cancers (breast and ovarian cancers)
  • May improve loss of the weight gained during pregnancy (see below)
  • Spacing of children which gives every child a chance to develop to its fullest potential and allows mothers to recover their health, strength and nutritional reserves before they have the next child
  • Despite increased demands on body calcium stores during lactation, breastfeeding is associated with a decreased risk of hip fractures and osteoporosis after the menopause

Does breastfeeding benefit post-delivery weight loss?

Many women tend to avoid breastfeeding because they cannot wait to get back their svelte figures once the baby is born. I am often asked if newly delivered women can use diet X or pill Y to "Lose the 'baby weight' as soon as possible!". These determined slimmers assure me that they are not going to breastfeed because they intend doing everything in their power to shed the kg they gained and to firm up their wobbly tums.

After pointing out to these ladies that they would be giving their babies the very best start in life, preventing an endless list of future health problems for the child, making the child more intelligent and also preventing what seems to be the mother’s prime obsession, namely future weight gain of the infant, I also mention that breastfeeding can help the mother to regain her prepregnancy weight (provided of course that she started her pregnancy out with a normal body weight).

According to Mahan and her coauthors (2012), "Lactation is nutritionally demanding". Regarding the energy demands that lactation makes on the mother, it has been calculated that to produce 100 ml of breastmilk, which has an energy content of about 315 kJ, the mother uses up 357 kJ. In view of the fact that the average milk production during the first 6 months of breastfeeding is 750 ml/day, a lactating woman expends 2,678 kJ per day to produce milk for her baby.

It is usually recommended that normal-weight women should increase their energy intake by approx. 1400 kJ per day during lactation, which then still leaves an additional 1300 kJ/day to be obtained from the woman’s fat stores.

Mothers who were overweight or obese at the start of their pregnancies need not increase their energy intake by the full 1400 kJ/day to encourage additional weightloss without strict dieting which could cause reduced intake of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals that are vital to both the mother and the child.
 
Weight loss of about ½ kg per week in breastfeeding women will usually occur provided the mother does not ‘eat for two’, thus far exceeding the prudent energy intake increase suggested above.

So this means that if you breastfeed your baby exclusively for 6 months and only increase your energy intake by an additional 1400 kJ per day (or less if you are obese/overweight), then in 6 months you will probably be able to lose 12 kg due to the breastfeeding process alone.

Exercise during breastfeeding

The 13th Edition of Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process, has clarified that breastfeeding mothers can “return to exercise a few weeks after delivery, after lactation is well established.” It is, however, advisable to scale down aerobic exercise slightly (30-40%) and not to exercise to total exhaustion. If in doubt, first check with your medical doctor to make quite sure that you have recovered fully from the birth process, particularly if you have had a Caesarian section.

Moderate exercise during breastfeeding is, therefore, no longer a no-no, and it can be used sensibly to help women lose weight and regain their pre-pregnancy figures.

In view of the impressive list of advantages associated with breastfeeding for moms and babies, all women who can breastfeed should give both their children and themselves this priceless gift of the bountiful benefits of breastfeeding.

References: Lepage P et al (1987). Community-acquired bacteraemia in Arica. The Lancet, Vol 329, Issue 8548:1458-61; Mahan LK et al (2012).Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process,13th Edition. Elsevier, USA; Mayo Clinic Staff (2013). Meningitis. www.mayoclinic.com/health/meningitis/DS00118)

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.

 
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