The benefits of breastfeeding

Breastfeeding has many benefits for both mum and baby, but what makes it so good?

Over the years, research has investigated the composition of breast milk and confirmed that it provides babies with perfectly balanced nutrition, which is why both the Department of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life.

The main benefits of breastfeeding are that breast milk:

  • Provides the correct balance of nutrients required for optimal growth and development in a form that is readily absorbed by an infant’s immature digestive system
  • Changes its composition over time to provide the baby with the nutrients needed for growth
  • Contains antibodies and other immunological factors to protect the infant from infection, which cannot be replicated in infant formula milk
  • Contains enzymes to aid digestion by the baby’s immature digestive system
  • Contains less protein and fewer electrolytes than cows’ milk, to ensure an excessive burden is not placed on the baby’s immature kidneys
  • Contains substances such as long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPs), which have a key role to play in the normal development of brain, vision and psychomotor functions
  • Appears to protect infants from gastrointestinal infection and reduces the risk of Crohn’s disease
  • Appears to help prevent babies from developing allergies such as asthma and eczema, as well as diabetes in childhood, respiratory tract infections and middle-ear infections.

In addition, breastfeeding:

  • Provides close physical contact between mother and baby, strengthening their bond, both physically and emotionally
  • Is convenient – sterile breast milk is always available at the right temperature with no need for preparation or storage. It is also free
  • Can use up to 500 calories a day, if exclusively breastfeeding
  • Can reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

The Department of Health and the World Health Organization recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life

First milk

First milk (colostrum) is produced in small volumes in the first few days after birth. It is yellow in colour and thick and sticky in consistency. Colostrum has a higher protein content than mature breast milk, with the protein mostly composed of antibodies to protect infants from infection until they can build up their own immunity. This is why it is important for mothers to start breastfeeding from birth, even if it is just for these early days. Colostrum has a lower fat content than mature breast milk and is rich in minerals and vitamins A, D and B12.

Mature milk

Colostrum gradually develops into mature milk over a period of about 10 days. Mature milk is thinner and whiter than first milk. Frequent breastfeeding stimulates production of mature milk and helps to prevent breast engorgement. The composition of mature milk also changes during a feed:

  • Fore milk, which is thin and high in volume to satisfy a baby’s thirst, is produced first
  • Hind milk, which is produced towards the end of a feed, is richer in fat and calories to satisfy a baby’s hunger and support healthy growth. It is impossible to tell when the composition of a mother’s milk changes from fore to hind milk, so it is important that a baby empties one breast completely before moving to the other to ensure the benefits of both the fore and hind milk are received.

It can take around six weeks to fully establish breastfeeding. Frequent feeding is also important to stimulate milk production.

Top tips for breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is a skill that needs to be learned and it can take time and practice to get the hang of it. Offer mums these tips to help:

  • Feeds can vary in length, so ensure you are comfortable before starting to feed
  • Wear a supportive, front-opening bra with breast pads in case of leakage
  • Breast milk is around 88 per cent water, so ensure you drink at least six to eight glasses of fluid every day
  • Try to rest and take a nap when your baby does, instead of rushing around doing housework
  • Talk to a healthcare professional if you have any concerns about your baby and feeding
  • If you are experiencing problems, speak to a breastfeeding counsellor or join a breastfeeding support group.


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