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The Benefits of Breast Feeding: It's Not Just the Milk

Updated on August 23, 2010

The availability of formula and bottle feeding as an alternative to natural breast milk has saved lives in situations where breast feeding was not possible, and it is undoubtedly true that infant mortality has been reduced in some measure through this method of feeding newborns. However, countless studies suggest that breast feeding, where it is possible, is a better alternative. Some of the reasons to prefer breast feeding are better nutrition, immune response conferred to the infant by the mother, and the psychological benefits of a physical, intimate relationship between mother and child. New studies have suggested one other benefit to breastfeeding: the exercise of suckling from the breast, which is much more difficult for the infant than sucking on a bottle, has a correlation with better lung capacity later in childhood.

At the Breast

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia


Before I proceed any further, I need to confess that I did not breastfeed my own daughter. I had no milk, and so there was no alternative but to bottle feed. This article is not intended to be judgmental toward mothers who for one reason or another end up bottle feeding. It is intended to convey general information about the subject, so that mothers can make informed decisions, based on their own particular situation.

History of Breast-Feeding

Once upon a time there was no choice and hence no dilemma. If you wanted your baby to live, you had to breastfeed. Mothers with no milk were not mothers for long. Infants with no sucking reflex did not exist because they had no chance. The population was healthy, and all was right with the world. The balance between mother and child was perfect, the bond was unbreakable, and both infant and mother did their share of the work in delivering nutrition to the baby.

In time, as civilization progressed, people anxious to save their babies realized that if the mother didn't have milk in sufficient quantity, another woman who was lactating could fill her place, and the baby would thrive. The wet nurse came into being, and this became an important role that women played as society became more stratified. From being an emergency provision to save the life of a baby, the wet nurse became a marker of social status, and women high in society could be spared the burden of breast feeding while hired hands kept their children thriving.

Even so, there was still no substitute for breast milk, and a baby still had to learn how to suckle and do his share in pumping out the milk, or he would not survive.

Advertisement for Neslte baby formula Image Credit: Wikipedia
Advertisement for Neslte baby formula Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Invention of Baby Formula

People began to experiment with artificial, homemade infant formulas in the nineteenth century, after sterilizing cow's milk became prevalent. While ordinary cow's milk is unsuitable for small infants and is currently not recommended by most physicians for infants under the age of twelve months, cow's milk was an important ingredient in homemade formula. It was called formula, because people were always trying to find the right formula to create an artificial milk that contained the nutrients that are required by a human infant. The invention of the rubber nipple, in 1845 by Elijah Pratt, paved the way for effective bottle feeding, and in time homemade formula was replaced by commercial products.

During most of the twentieth century, the trend in industrialized countries was away from breast feeding and toward the use of formula. There were even claims by some that formula was a better way to go because the nutritional content of what the baby was consuming could be monitored and modified as necessary. Other factors that played into the choice involved freeing the mother from the duty of being on hand for baby care throughout the day. Mothers who worked outside the home in environments where babies were not welcome could be assured that their baby was being well cared for and properly fed by others, without hiring a wet nurse.

In the 1970s, there was a resurgence of breast feeding among industrial nations, and people became aware of the health benefit of immune response and antibodies passed by mother to child through breast milk.

Eventually, the touting of breast milk as being more healthy than formula led to the breast pump.

An Electric Breast Pump Image Credit: The Wikipedia
An Electric Breast Pump Image Credit: The Wikipedia

The Breast-Pump

While a breast-pump patent in the U.S. was granted as early as 1854, and there have been improvements being implemented ever since, breast pumps did not go into regular use as a way of expressing mother's milk for healthy infants by healthy mothers until after the backlash against baby formula toward the end of the twentieth century.

Because there had been studies that indicated that breast fed babies were healthier and more intelligent than their bottle fed contemporaries, many mothers, even those who worked outside the home, wanted to confer this special benefit on their children -- without changing their lifestyle.

BreastFeeding: Product or Process?

All of these developments stem from an understanding of breast milk as a product with certain nutritional ingredients, that can either be replicated artificially or transferred from mother to child in its original form without maintaining a physical bond. But is that all there is to breast feeding?

A recent study has found that children at age ten have better lung function if they were breast-fed for a longer period in infancy. It turns out that the suckling action engaged in by the infant at the breast is different from the effort required to get milk out of an artificial nipple. Breast feeding requires more effort on the part of the infant, and it therefore exercises not just the mouth, but also the lungs. One of the conclusions that some readers drew from the study was that it might be beneficial to make artificial nipples a little harder to suck on, so that bottle fed babies can get the same benefit for their lungs.

While it is undoubtedly true that the way most artificial nipples are made, they require less "ventilatory" effort than real breasts in order for the infant to express milk, I think a little caution should be exercised in following this line of thinking. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation. It might just as well be possible that to some extent infants who are bottle fed are self-selecting, and that one of the reasons mothers choose to bottle feed is that their infant is not thriving at the breast. Sometimes bottle feeding happens because the mother doesn't have enough milk. But sometimes it is the infant who, because of illness or poor lung capacity, is unable to suckle, but thrives on the bottle, because the bottle requires less of him.

If we start to question the idea that correlation implies causation, we may also question the studies that suggest mother's milk makes babies smarter. Is there a special elixir in mother's milk that directly boosts intelligence? (Lots of baby formula manufacturers seemed to think so in the 90's and assured us that they added the special ingredient to their product.) But isn't it possible that the bond between mother and child that forms when they are stuck together all day long, with long sessions of nursing and gazing into each other's eyes, might have something to do with the higher average intelligence of breast fed babies?

Tolerance for Different Choices

When it come to breastfeeding, as with other aspects of child rearing, there are many different reasons why parents make the choices they do. It's important to recognize that a choice made by one mother may be the best one she can make for her infant, while the exact opposite choice made by another mother may be best for her child.

Breast-feeding is more natural, and in many ways it has been proven to be healthier, but we don't always know what aspect of breast feeding is most important for each mother infant pair. Breast feeding as a whole has sustained mankind since before recorded history, but viewing breast milk as a mere product can make us overlook the dynamics of the process.

Sometimes mothers cannot breast feed, because they have no milk, or the infant has poor lung capacity, or they are on medication, or the infant has unusual dietary needs. In such cases, bottle feeding may be best, and many a life has been saved that way. The infant mother bond, despite the disruption of the physical process of breast feeding, can still be maintained, by holding the baby and interacting with him during bottle feeding. By the same token, while breast pumps can be very useful as ways to keep the milk supply flowing while a premature baby or an ill newborn cannot suckle, expressing mother's milk and having random people feed it to the baby will in all likelihood not confer the benefits of higher intelligence associated with breast feeding. It's the relationship that is important for psychological benefits of breast feeding to accrue. Breast feeding has many benefits, and to understand what they are, we need to evaluate the process as a whole.

Copyright 2010 Aya Katz


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    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      6 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Paxwill. There are different pros and cons based on the individual mother-infant pair, so it would not make sense to try to judge others by a strict standard of prescribed dos and don'ts.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I completely agree with you that we should be tolerant of others' feeding choices and not demonize women who bottle feed. You bring up important points that are often overlooked.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      7 years ago from The Ozarks

      JimmyleSaint, thanks for your comment. Each situation is different, and each mother has to decide based on the benefits and detriments to her own child. I have never heard of transmitting cancer through breast milk, though.

    • jimmylesaint profile image


      7 years ago from Metropolis of Life

      Excellent Hub .Breast feeding is certainly the recommended way and providing mum isn't ill is the fantastic way of bonding and feeding child. In Africa where HIV is prevalent, breast feeding is actually giving your child a death sentence. If i may has been set up to combat this by supplying the correct ARV drugs to prevent this or supplying supplemental milk(which ever is more cost effective)

      Also recently there has been questions raised about passing on certain cancers via breast feeding. So unfortunately nothing is straight forward as black and white:(

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Ankitakutil, thanks for your comment and for sharing your experiences with breastfeeding.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Its a very good hub with lot of information. I am still breastfeeding my little gal who is 14 months old and plan to breastfeed atleast once a day until she is 18 months. I totally believe there is no match to breastmilk but at the same time I believe babies should be given solids as soon as they are able to eat. Feeding solid foods gives enough nutrients (always supplement with breastfeeding) and makes easy transition when trying to weaning at later stage.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thayak, thanks for your comment.

    • thayak profile image


      7 years ago from San Jose, CA

      Nice hub! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Vphomma1, thanks. I think it's great that you were able to breastfeed your daughter for two years. I'm sure this has contributed positively to her development in more ways than one.

    • vphomma1 profile image


      7 years ago

      I am a breastfeeding mom and I totally agree with you about Western's anti-breastfeeding mentality. It's sad to think that for beauty, public decency babies have to pay the price for it. Doctors and Scientists all agree to the benefits of breast milk in boosting infants' immunity against many diseases like eczema and asthma to name a few. Yet, most mom opted for formula because of the ideas of inconvenience and sagging breast. I have a daughter with severe eczema whose diagnosed since 5 months old despite being a breastfeed for 2 years. I am glad I chose not to bottle feed her otherwise she would've been worse than she is now.

      Eczema: Conventional and Alternative Approaches to Alleviating Childhood Eczema

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Ngureco, thanks for your comment. I agree that the Western influence against breast-feeding in public, and the fetishization of the mammary gland as only an object of sexual pleasure is a very negative thing. You're right that even mentioning that word can cause all sorts of problems. I experienced that with the automatic censoring of this hub, and twice ads were disabled, just because the word appeared too often in the hub. The solution was to remove the space between words in a compound and to hyphenate wherever possible.

    • ngureco profile image


      8 years ago

      This is a very good hub that should encourage many mothers to breast feed their babies.

      There are a good number of women who believes that breasting feeding a baby causes sagging breasts and as such they avoid breast feeding their babies. Everybody wants to look clean, attractive and young. But the truth is that breast-feeding does not cause sagging- breasts, but body changes due to pregnancy does.

      Right now, the Western influence against breast feeding in public is too much. It never was shameful for a woman to expose her breasts and breast feed her baby in the public. Today, even mentioning the word ‘breast’ is a serious issue in some quarters.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Medkh9, thanks!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      a very informative hub AYA

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Izzy!

    • IzzyM profile image


      8 years ago from UK

      Great hub..rated up!


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