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Breast milk comes with amazing benefits and its value extends beyond daily nutrition. Not only does breast milk contain all the necessary nutrients and vitamins, but it also helps in fighting diseases and infections and protects the baby from several illnesses. It is highly recommended to feed the baby with breast milk for at least six months. However, the mother is free to feed the baby even beyond that, as it really improves the baby's immunity.
World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year across the globe from August 1 to August 7 to promote and support breastfeeding and to improve the babies health around the world. This event also focuses on maternal health, good nutrition, poverty reduction and food security.
Benefits Of Breastfeeding For The Baby
1. Protects from infections and diseases
According to studies, babies that are breastfed are at a lower risk of contracting any serious diseases. Ear infections, respiratory tract problems, meningitis, stomach flu, etc., are less likely to be found in infants who are breastfed. Even if they are found, they are mild. When babies are solely on breast milk without the consumption of solid food, water or formula milk, they have better chances of remaining healthy.
A study done showed that infants aged between 28 days and 1 year have higher mortal risk when they are not breastfed post birth. Longer breastfeeding results in the longevity of babies. Colostrum, which is the first milk produced by the mother's body, is rich in immunoglobulin A (IgA). This is a substance secreted to provide immunity. However, as the milk attains maturity, this secretion becomes slightly less.
IgA forms a defensive barrier on the mucous membrane of the baby's throat, neck, nose, intestines, etc., and protects the organs from germs.
Besides, a mother's milk is specifically produced for her baby's requirements. Whatever harmful pathogens the mother is exposed to, her milk has the required IgA to protect against those viruses and bacteria. Hence the baby stays protected from the environment the mother is exposed to.
2. Prevents cancer and diabetes
The breastmilk contains certain antibodies that inhibit the development of cancer in babies and boost their immunities  . Also, it prevents the occurrence of major diseases like high cholesterol, diabetes of type 1 and 2, inflammatory bowel symptoms, etc., in the later stages of life. Babies that have not been properly breastfed have been found to be at a higher risk of contracting ulcer colitis, high blood pressure and Crohn's disease.
3. Protects from allergies
Babies that are fed formula milk or other market-available milk are more prone to develop allergic reactions. Immunoglobulin A plays a major role in the protection of babies against germs, because of its protective barrier on intestinal tracts. In the absence of mother's milk, IgA can never come into play. The intestines may also develop leaky syndrome. Proteins, when not properly broken down, can cross over in the gut lining causing serious health issues for the baby. Inflammation and allergies can become highly frequent.
4. Improves intelligence
Scientists have found connections between breastmilk and cognitive abilities. Children that have been fed mother's milk for a longer time have been found to possess higher IQs. Infants who had low birth weight, who were fed on breastmilk right from the start, had better mental development post 18 months than the infants who were not treated the same  .
The fatty acids in breast milk are essential for babies' mental growth; nevertheless, the emotional bonding between the mother and baby during the breastfeeding can also be a factor.
5. Lowers the risk of obesity
It has been observed that breast milk offers the child a lower risk of obesity or high cholesterol while development. That effect also lasts until teenage or further. The longer the baby has been breastfed, the higher its chances of surviving obesity. Breastfeeding can impact weight issues due to following reasons.
- Babies on breast milk usually feed till they feel full and satisfied. This helps them to develop better eating habits while growing up  .
- The amount of insulin in breast milk is less than formula milk and insulin increases the production of fats in the body.
- Breast milk contains more leptin in it which is essential to regulate appetite and fat content in the body.
- Babies that are fed on formula milk instead of breastmilk tend to gain weight faster in the first few weeks, which later becomes responsible for obesity.
6. Lowers the risk of SIDS in babies
Breastfeeding effectively prevents SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) in children  . Feeding breastmilk exclusively for 6 months can be really helpful to fight against this syndrome.
Benefits Of Breastfeeding For The Mother
1. Helps to lose weight
Women tend to gain weight post pregnancy. However, breastfeeding helps the mother to maintain her weight effortlessly. Her body starts burning more energy to put that nutrition into her milk and the hormones start balancing themselves accordingly. Due to this reason, lactation in women increases their appetite and capacity to store fat within their bodies for the production of milk.
For a couple of months, the mother might feel that she is not losing any weight compared to women who don't breastfeed. However, post 3-4 months, they will observe that they are burning more fat than before. Breastfeeding women post 6 months of delivery have been known to shed more pounds  . Yet, a certain amount of healthy diet and exercise would still be helpful to remove that extra layer.
2. Helps in the contraction in uterus
Pregnancy is responsible for the growth of uterus. From the size of a pear, it widens to the size of the entire abdomen. Post-delivery, the uterus undergoes a process of retraction to normal size through involution. The main hormone responsible to cause this action is oxytocin, which stays pretty active during pregnancy.
Oxytocin is released in high volumes by the body during labour, for the easy delivery of baby and reduced bleeding  . It is also secreted during breastfeeding to help in the contraction of uterus. Breastfeeding helps mothers with reduced loss of blood after labour, and faster contraction of the uterus.
3. Decreases the chance of depression
Almost 15 per cent of women suffer from depression post labour. This can be due to several reasons. But women that wean later in life or breastfeed their babies regularly are less likely to suffer from depression compared to women who don't. Women who have trouble in breastfeeding their infants postpartum or who do it for a short duration are higher on the radar of depression as well  .
Although the reasons are unclear, it is conclusive that women who breastfeed have more maternal feelings and emotional bonding with their children due to the hormones. This helps them stay happy from within.
Oxytocin is produced highly during pregnancy and breastfeeding. This chemical helps in the reduction of anxiety. It affects certain areas inside the brain that develop nurturing and relaxed attitude in the mother. These mothers are less likely to neglect their child compared to women who avoid breastfeeding.
However, these are pure statistical records and by no means have they concluded any surety.
4. Reduces risk of diseases
Breastfeeding defends the mother against several diseases like cancer, intestinal ulcer, etc  . The amount of time a woman spends on this activity is directly proportional to her protection from breast, uterus or ovarian cancer. Each year of breastfeeding lowers down her risk of cancer by 4.3 per cent.
Metabolic syndrome, which is accountable to increase chances of heart diseases and major health problems, is significantly reduced in mothers that feed their babies for 1-2 years. They suffer from the lower risk of arthritis, blood pressure issues, diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, etc.
5. Prevents mothers from menstruating
Consistency in breastfeeding can cause the ovulation cycle and periods to halt. It is the nature's way of giving the woman relaxation time to conceive again. Also, it is an efficient method to control birth after a few months of the baby's delivery  . Nonetheless, it cannot always be the sureshot method to avoid pregnancy.
6. Saves money and time
Formula milk is costly. Breastfeeding can really cut down this unnecessary cost.
Also, formula milk needs to be fed from sterilized bottles. Cleaning them regularly can be a hassle for the mother when she has other things to take care of. When the baby wakes up in the middle of the night for food, she won't have to warm and mix milk in bottles at all. It will no longer be an exhausting task for her to plan how to carry warm bottles while travelling.
How Long Should You Breastfeed
Breastfeeding is extremely important for the first 6 months, as the child gets to derive maximum nutrition out of mother's milk. If it is stopped before this, the child is more likely to suffer from chronic diseases and allergies.
Indeed, WHO and UNICEF advice breastfeeding for more than a year. Small amounts of solid food can be added to its routine along with breastmilk, for up to 3 years. The longer the baby feeds on mother's milk, the healthier it turns out to be in adult life.
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-  Vohr, B. R., Poindexter, B. B., Dusick, A. M., McKinley, L. T., Wright, L. L., Langer, J. C., & Poole, W. K. (2006). Beneficial effects of breast milk in the neonatal intensive care unit on the developmental outcome of extremely low birth weight infants at 18 months of age. Pediatrics, 118(1), e115-e123.
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-  Dennis, C. L., & McQueen, K. (2007). Does maternal postpartum depressive symptomatology influence infant feeding outcomes?. Acta paediatrica, 96(4), 590-594.
-  Prevost, M., Zelkowitz, P., Tulandi, T., Hayton, B., Feeley, N., Carter, C. S., ... & Gold, I. (2014). Oxytocin in pregnancy and the postpartum: relations to labor and its management. Frontiers in public health, 2, 1.
-  Jarlenski, M. P., Bennett, W. L., Bleich, S. N., Barry, C. L., & Stuart, E. A. (2014). Effects of breastfeeding on postpartum weight loss among US women. Preventive medicine, 69, 146-150.