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What Are the Health Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mother and Child?

Updated on January 24, 2015

Breastfeeding: Longer, the better

Breastfeeding has several positive effects on the health of both mother and infant. On the average, breastfed children have a lower risk of: respiratory infections , gastrointestinal infections, middle ear inflammation, obesity , type 2 diabetes mellitus , hypertension , and atopic dermatitis compared with children who are not breastfed. The benefits for mothers are as follows: a reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis, faster weight loss and subsequent return of menstruation. The health effects are greater as the mother is breastfeeding longer.

Less risk of infection if breastfed more than six months

Children who are breastfed for longer than six months have a lower risk of infections of the upper respiratory tract, infections of the lower respiratory tract and gastrointestinal infections than children who never breastfed. This is evidenced by the results of the Generation R Study Rotterdam. The effect is visible in the first six months of the child... Children from seven to twelve months of age have fewer infections of the lower respiratory tract if they are breastfed for more than four months.

Children who are six months or more to get full breastfeeding, have a lower risk of gastrointestinal infections than children who, after three or four months start weaning off breastfeeding.

Full breastfeeding means that children get no other food or drink besides breast milk.

How to breastfeed

Less risk of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure

Breastfeeding has a small but consistent protective effect on the occurrence of (severe) obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. Again, the effects for the child are greater if the mother gives (full) breastfeeding longer. In addition, breastfeeding reduces the risk of high blood pressure. Breastfed children at a later age have lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

It is still unknown how breastfeeding protects against obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure or that there is another explanation for the association. Mothers who (long-term) breastfeeding, often differ from mothers who do not.


Prolonged breast feeding protects against rheumatoid arthritis

Mothers who are breastfeeding a year or more in their lives, have significantly less risk of rheumatoid arthritis ( RA ), compared with mothers who never breast-feeding. The protective effect increases with the duration of breastfeeding. RA is more common in women than in men. This could mean that hormonal factors play a role. There is also evidence that mothers who breastfeed long have a lower risk of premenopausal breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Breastfeeding has beneficial effects on child development

Breastfeeding promotes neurological, visual and cognitive development of the child. The intelligence test score of breastfed children on average were 5 points higher than non-breastfed children. This favorable effect is ascribed to the presence of essential fatty acids in breast milk, in particular DHA and AA , which are important for brain tissue, and the retina. These fatty acids are abundant in the child during pregnancy.

No significant association between breastfeeding and eczema

Breastfed children seem to have a lower risk of eczema, but the difference with non-breastfed children is not significant. For other allergic diseases such as asthma and food allergy, the evidence is less strong.

Positive effects on milk composition and bonding

The positive effects for the child may arise from the composition of breast milk (essential fatty acids, sodium and other components), the skin to skin contact and the specific attention of the mother to the child during feeding. The composition of breast milk acts directly on the intestinal flora of the child and help to be immune to infections. The contact between mother and child and specifically the skin contact may be beneficial for the adhesion and the development of the child.

The Adverse effects

With breastfeeding mother can transfer some pollutants, such as dioxins and fat soluble PCB 's to her child. Exposure to high concentrations of dioxins and PCBs is associated with lower scores in tests for neurological and cognitive development. However, the effects are not large and are clinically considered of little relevance. The adverse effect of potential environmental contaminants in breast milk does not outweigh the health benefits of breastfeeding.

Breast milk does not provide enough vitamin K. Breast milk contains less vitamin K than bottle feeding.

Apart from environmental contaminants, viruses and medications can also end up with the child through breast milk. In those cases, a mother should take at most care to prevent her child from infections. This is the case when the mother has certain infectious diseases such as HIV and under severe medication (eg antidepressants).

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