The health and economic benefits of breastfeeding are well documented. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), human milk is “uniquely suited” for human infants. With rare exceptions, human milk provides the most complete form of nutrition for infants, including premature and sick newborns.
Accordingly, the AAP recommends that infants be breastfed exclusively for the first six months after birth, and that breastfeeding continue through the entire first year of life. Breastfeeding after the first 12 months should continue as long as mutually desired. When direct breastfeeding is not possible, expressed human milk, fortified when necessary for the premature infant, should be provided.
Human milk has all the essential nutrients and sufficient calories to meet infants’ nutritional demands. Breastfed infants experience a lower incidence of infectious and non-infectious diseases as well as less severe cases of diarrhea, respiratory infections, and ear infections. In the period immediately following birth, the first milk produced by a breastfeeding mother (colostrum) stimulates gastrointestinal maturation and boosts immune function in infants.
Evidence is mounting of the long-term benefits of breastfeeding to children and to adults who were breastfed as infants. Recent studies suggest that breastfeeding may reduce a number of chronic childhood diseases including diabetes, celiac-disease, inflammatory bowel disease and childhood cancer. In addition, breastfed infants show a pattern of gaining less weight and being leaner at one year of age than formula-fed infants, while maintaining normal activity level and development.
Researchers suggest that early infancy is a critical period for the establishment of obesity. Breastfeeding mothers experience less postpartum blood loss as well as a decreased risk of osteoporosis and some kinds of reproductive cancers. In fact, recent research data from 30 countries highlight the role of breastfeeding in reducing a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer, which is the most common form of cancer among American women.
Even though research has proven that human milk provides the most complete form of nutrition for infants there are circumstances where the risk of breastfeeding outweighs the benefits. These instances are when the mother is infected with HIV or has human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1) and runs the risk of transmitting the disease to the child.