You may have heard that breastfeeding is best for your baby. Did you know that breastfeeding is also best for your health? There are so many advantages of breastfeeding / chestfeeding, and while health is an important factor, there’s more than that.

I’ve breastfed for nearly a solid 10 years now (with a small break while pregnant with my youngest). But believe it or not, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to breastfeed at all when I was pregnant with my first. But after learning about all the benefits of breastfeeding, I decided I wanted to try. From there, I fell in love with nursing my little one and became really passionate about educating other moms on how to reach their personal breastfeeding goals.

Ready to learn the foundations of breastfeeding? Make sure you snag the Breastfeeding 101 Toolkit, where you’ll get tips on how to get ready for nursing, recognize hunger cues, know your baby is eating enough, and more!

With that said, this post is all about the importance of breastfeeding. You’ll learn about how breastfeeding impacts your baby’s health and your health, how it affects mental health, plus how breastfeeding can make day-to-day life with baby easier.

Breast milk nutrition

Human breast milk is perfectly designed for human babies. It contains exactly the right proteins, fats, and sugars that your baby needs to grow.

When your baby is brand new, your milk won’t look like “milk” at all. Instead, it will be a thick, golden yellow substance called colostrum. This thick substance helps push meconium out of your baby’s digestive system. Colostrum doesn’t have much fat or sugar, but it is full of proteins and white blood cells. These components protect your baby’s immune system and even coat their digestive tract, protecting them from disease.

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As your milk “comes in,” it will change in composition to look more like milk that you’re used to seeing. Like cow’s milk, human milk contains whey and casein, two different milk proteins. However, the percentages of each protein type is different. That’s just one of the reasons that cow’s milk is not well digested by babies.

Human milk also contains more fat than cow’s milk. Fats in your milk are a great calorie source for your growing little one, but they also help with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, nervous system growth, and more. Specific fatty acids found in breast milk are important in protecting baby’s gut health and reducing risk of necrotizing enterocolitis, a deadly disease that can affect newborns.

The primary carbohydrate in breast milk is lactose. This sugar both feeds your baby and promotes the growth of good bacteria in your baby’s digestive system.

In addition, breast milk has the perfect blend of vitamins and minerals for your baby, all important for growth, immune system development, brain and eye development, and more.

Antibodies in breast milk

While formula contains proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (plus vitamins and minerals), it can never compete with breast milk. That’s because the mother’s body can produce antibodies and other proteins that protect baby against illness.

For example, one protein called bifidus factor supports the growth of lactobacillus, a bacteria. This is a “good” gut bacteria fed by lactose (remember, the primary carbohydrate in breast milk! When lactobacillus grows, it makes the gut more acidic (meaning bad bacteria can’t grow there).

Another amazing thing about human milk: It’s changing all the time. So if your baby is sick, you’ll start producing antibodies (called immunogloblins) specific to the bacteria or virus that your baby is fighting off.

This is one reason breastfeeding is so beneficial to your baby. It lowers risks for ear infections, colds and flu, gut infections, and more.

Breastfeeding health benefits for baby

Breastfeeding doesn’t just protect your little ones from the sniffles or ear infections when they’re little. It actually has life-long benefits once your child grows into an adult. This is why we say that supporting breastfeeding is the foundation of public health.

Breastfeeding protects your child from:

  • asthma
  • eczema
  • several cancers (including breast and ovarian)
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • type 2 diabetes

and many more illnesses throughout their lifetime.

RELATED: Benefits of breastfeeding by age

Ready to learn the foundations of breastfeeding? Make sure you snag the Breastfeeding 101 Toolkit, where you’ll get tips on how to get ready for nursing, recognize hunger cues, know your baby is eating enough, and more!

Benefits of breastfeeding to the mother

Breastfeeding also provides health benefits for mom, both in the short term and for her long-term health.

Immediately after birth, it’s important that you deliver the placenta and that your uterus shrinks (to limit bleeding). Breastfeeding releases oxytocin (more on that later) and promotes uterine contractions, that while not fun, really help your uterus shrink back down. In one study, being skin-to-skin and breastfeeding baby made postpartum hemorrhage almost half as likely (compared to not breastfeeding within the first 30 minutes of birth).

But breastfeeding isn’t just a lifesaving measure during the first few days postpartum. In fact, breastfeeding can reduce a mother’s risk of many negative health outcomes throughout the rest of her life.

Ovarian cancer, certain breast cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes… so many major health risks are lowered by breastfeeding (and the longer you breastfeed, the more benefits there are).

And remember, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. That’s why breastfeeding isn’t just a public health issue for babies, but for adult women too.

My grandmother’s had a heart attack. Her mother died of a heart attack. My great aunt had breast cancer. Several of my family members have or had diabetes. So yes, breastfeeding is important to me!

Breastfeeding and bonding

One of the biggest unmentioned advantages of breastfeeding is the connection. Obviously, I’m not saying that you can’t connect with your baby if you don’t breastfeed. However, nursing your baby does make bonding easier.

Many of the recommendations for best results in breastfeeding foster closeness between mother and baby: Things like skin-to-skin, holding you baby or keeping them with you in a carrier, sleeping near your baby… All these practices are conducive to bonding.

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I’m certainly not saying that. But what I am saying is, of course, just the physical closeness of breastfeeding in and of itself, you know, that is like a good way to connect with your baby. The fact that we recommend skin to skin, you know, especially with newborns and tiny, tiny babies, when we’re breastfeeding, that’s a good way to connect with your baby.

But beyond that, there are physiological responses that foster bonding, both in your body and your baby’s body, when you breastfeed. Oxytocin is released during a “let-down” of milk, triggered by baby’s suckling. This molecule is sometimes known as the “bonding hormone” or “love hormone.” Higher levels of oxytocin in a parent helps parents feel more affectionate and even help them respond better to their child’s needs.

And let’s be honest, the fact that breastfeeding requires you to sit or lie down with your little one every 2-4 hours and focus on cuddling them up feels really wonderful! It’s no wonder that breastfeeding promotes bonding with baby.

Psychological benefits of breastfeeding for mom

As we mentioned before, breastfeeding causes a release of oxytocin (both for mom and baby). This supply of love hormone is really important for mom, whose other hormone levels are all over the place (which can cause some moodiness).

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While the results are mixed and complex, some studies have suggested that breastfeeding (and the resulting boost of oxytocin) can be protective for postpartum depression and other postnatal mood disorders. What we do know is that women who formula feed have higher rates of depression that breastfeeding women, although whether that’s a physiological response to lower oxytocin levels or just pressure due to lack of societal support isn’t clear.

Why breastfeeding can be easier than formula feeding

Despite what formula companies imply, breastfeeding is often much easier and more convenient than bottle feeding! Yes, the first few weeks there’s often a steep learning curve, but once you and your little one have learned what you’re doing, it’s not a problem. Whenever your baby is hungry, you can simply put them to the breast – no mixing powders, no filling bottles, no spending every night sterilizing bottles.

One great thing about the ease of breastfeeding is that you can respond to your little one’s hunger cues more quickly. The recommendation is to feed your baby just as soon as they show hunger cues. In newborns, this can be really subtle – things like smacking lips and fluttering eyelids. If you wait until your baby is upset and crying to feed them, it can be harder to settle them so they can eat. That’s one reason that the ease of breastfeeding can be so helpful!

Plus, you don’t have to worry about carrying formula, bottles, and everything whenever you go out and about. (And in case you’re worried about judgy onlookers, in the United States you have a right to breastfeed anywhere you and your child are allowed to be. You can’t be asked to move or cover up).

While so many parenting gurus try to convince you to teach your baby to fall asleep without nursing, that’s not what they’re designed to do! Breastfeeding your baby to sleep makes things so much easier. And if you follow very specific guidelines, you can even use co sleeping to make nighttime parenting even easier (and restful for you both).

RELATED: Surviving cluster feeding at night

Ready to learn the foundations of breastfeeding? Make sure you snag the Breastfeeding 101 Toolkit, where you’ll get tips on how to get ready for nursing, recognize hunger cues, know your baby is eating enough, and more!

Even as your child gets older, breastfeeding can still be a great help. Once your child is a toddler, breastfeeding shifts to more a parenting tool than solely for nutrition (not that it was ever solely for nutrition, but I digress). For example, if your little one is running around and falls and skins their knee, nursing them can be a great comfort (and they’re likely to run off and play more just a few minutes later).

RELATED: One-year old breastfeeding – Benefits and how often

Benefits of long term breastfeeding

The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend breastfeeding exclusively for 6 months, and then continuing to breastfeed with complementary foods for at least 2 years.

RELATED: Benefits of breastfeeding by age

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As your baby grows older, your milk changes to meet their needs. Your breast milk’s fat and energy content increase as your baby grows. So on those picky toddler days when your little one is surviving on Goldfish and a couple raisins, you can be confident that they’re still getting the nutrition they need.

RELATED: Benefits of toddler nursing

Plus, the longer you breastfeed, the greater many of the benefits of breastfeeding are (including lowering both mom’s and baby’s cancer and heart disease risks). Given that these are some of the leading causes of death here in the US, it’s so important to protect and support breastfeeding.

Conclusions on the importance of breastfeeding

Breastfeeding offers so many benefits for your baby, and I encourage moms to breastfeed as long as they can.

With that said, if you’re wondering how long you need to breastfeed to get the benefits, the answer is this: Any amount of breastfeeding (no matter how short or long) is beneficial.

I hope this information gives you the motivation you need to breastfeed, and breastfeed longer. In addition, I hope it encourages you to share the benefits of breastfeeding (both to individuals and to society) with friends and family. Let me know if you have any questions, and don’t forget to grab the Breastfeeding 101 Toolkit for more help.