Breastfeeding protects and improves the short-term/acute health of babies. While they are breastfeeding, babies have less frequent, less serious, and shorter infections such as diarrheal, respiratory, viral illnesses, and ear infections.
When babies are less sick, and less often sick, it is a great relief to the parents and the whole family. There is a lot less suffering, less time out from daily living for illness and doctor/hospital visits, and babies can devote a lot more energy to growth and development. All babies get sick but well-breastfed babies get sick less often and less seriously.
Breastfeeding and the protection against chronic illnesses
Breastfeeding benefits are dose-related and the more exclusive, intensive and longer breastfeeding continues, the greater the protection both babies and mothers receive against chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, autoimmune illnesses and other chronic illnesses. In American medicine, we do an adequate job managing short-term illnesses, but we are doing very poorly managing chronic illness. Chronic illnesses are much more disabling and costly than acute short-term illnesses. Diabetes, heart disease, obesity and hormonally related cancers are our top killers and cost the USA the most in health care dollars, human suffering and lost productivity. These chronic diseases have all increased in the last century coinciding with the rise of formula feeding and fast food in America! Formula is a baby’s version of a highly processed “fast food”.
Chronic diseases have all increased in the last century coinciding with the rise of formula feeding and fast food in America
Obesity and diabetes are at epidemic proportions
That breastfeeding reduces the risk of many chronic illnesses for mom and baby is known but under-appreciated and under reported. I am going to give an example in the case of diabetes which is becoming more common and causes multi-system illness. Breastfeeding reduces diabetes for both mom and baby, by significant amounts if they are able to continue breastfeeding for a year or more. Exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months and continuing for a year reduces the risk of getting diabetes for the baby by as much as 40%.
For the mother, because breastfeeding acts as a metabolic stimulant just like exercise, it reduces her risk of diabetes also. And the risk reduction adds up with each baby she breastfeeds. Obesity and diabetes are at epidemic proportions in USA. Diabetes is costing us more than $1 of every 10 health care dollars in USA. It is one of our most expensive illnesses with increasing incidence and costs projected in future (1 out of 3 projected incidence).
Let me explain more about how breastfeeding reduces diabetes risk for both mom and baby. A breastfeeding baby grows and thrives on around 16-20% fewer calories because breast milk is alive and dynamic, and is much more bioavailable than formula. Breast milk has many hundreds of living ingredients while formula only has about 30-35 highly processed, non-living ingredients and is the same recipe for every feed and every baby. Breast milk though is unique from each mother for her unique baby, and the way a baby breastfeeds helps to determine the specific “recipe” of the mother’s milk.
As Maureen Minchin, the author of Milk Matters, says “A mother’s own milk, fed from her own body, has been the physiological norm since mammals evolved millions of years ago. The milk of each species has evolved to perfectly suit that species…and individual mothers of that species produce milk tailored both for that child and for the environment in which they and their infant live.” Katie Hinde, an anthropologist, in her TED talk about mothers’ milk discusses the different recipe of breast milk for girl babies and boy babies because girls and boys have different growth rates and patterns!
Caloric intake and the protection from obesity and diabetes in babies
The breastfed baby with a richer (full of bioactive nutrients) but reduced caloric intake compared to formula fed babies, means they grow and develop much better on less calories. This is a significant factor in the protection from obesity and diabetes for baby. Also, breastfeeding babies work for their feed so they are not likely to overfeed, but with bottle feeding, overfeeding is common. Another reason babies who are formula fed have greater rates of diabetes might be because the first and foremost ingredient of many formulas is corn syrup. It is usually listed first or second in the list of ingredients on formula cans.
We know that metabolic and nutritional habits are started in infancy so that means breastfed babies are at a lower risk for eating habits resulting in obesity, and all the other chronic illnesses that accompany obesity, including diabetes. The improved intestinal flora and immune function of the breastfed baby due to the very alive and dynamic aspect of breast milk, also contributes to the reduction of the risk of obesity and diabetes.
We know that metabolic and nutritional habits are started in infancy so that means breastfed babies are at a lower risk for eating habits resulting in obesity, and all the other chronic illnesses that accompany obesity, including diabetes.
Metabolic stimulation of making milk decreases risk of diabetes and obesity in mothers
With regards to how diabetes and metabolic disease is reduced for mothers it is due to the metabolic stimulation of making milk. Breastfeeding mothers burn an average of ¼ million calories in a year of fully breastfeeding and this daily metabolic stimulation is a significant factor in reducing her risk of obesity and diabetes. Those approximately 250,000 calories burned in a year of breastfeeding is roughly equivalent to running around 400 miles a year or walking 1000 miles. This significant metabolic boost decreases a mother’s risk of diabetes and many other chronic illnesses as well.
Breastfeeding is a rich opportunity for a woman to significantly boost her metabolic rate for a sustained time which is so important in our metabolically under-stimulating modern lifestyle! If she breastfeeds more than one baby the protection is accumulative. Recent research demonstrates that mothers with Gestational Diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) who breastfeed for at least 6 months can have a 47% reduced risk of diabetes later in life due to the sustained metabolic stimulation of breastfeeding.
Recent research demonstrates that mothers with Gestational Diabetes who breastfeed for at least 6 months can have a 47% reduced risk of diabetes later in life
Ineffective breastfeeding support holding mothers and babies back
Two-thirds of mothers and babies do not breastfeed for as long as they should to receive these benefits because they are not receiving the support they need and deserve. The top reasons they are not breastfeeding, or are not breastfeeding long enough to obtain more of the benefits are the lack of or ineffective breastfeeding support and services, and medical childbirth interventions, the lack of maternity/family paid leave and too early return to work, and the enticement of free or cheap formula from the medical care system, WIC, and the social promotion of formula due to USA’s refusal to adopt World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Code of Breast-milk substitutes.
If we would give better support to increase the breastfeeding continuation rates in America from the current rate of 84% initiation but only 34% of mothers making it to 1 year of breastfeeding, then imagine the reduction of metabolic disease and diabetes in our future health reports!
- International Code of Marketing Breast-milk Substitues- http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/code_english.pdf
- Breastfeeding Report Card United States, 2020 – https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/pdf/2020-Breastfeeding-Report-Card-H.pdf
- National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2020 – https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-stat-report.html
- Lactation Duration and Progression to Diabetes in Women Across the Childbearing Years – https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2668634