Years of research showed that breast milk has many benefits for the baby, mother, and even for society. Due to breastfeeding, children and mothers become more healthy, and society saves a significant amount of money on their health care. In this article, I will present scientific evidence regarding the benefits for the baby.
Data gathered over the years proves that infants who are fed with breast milk have lower incidence of many acute and chronic pediatric diseases such as otitis media, severe diarrhea, lower respiratory tract illness, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), inflammatory bowel disease, childhood leukemia, diabetes mellitus, obesity, asthma, and atopic dermatitis.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) prepared the best report to date on the effects of breastfeeding and breast milk on babies. Its title is: “Breastfeeding and Maternal and Infant Health Outcomes in Developed Countries” (Ref. 1)
Using data from the report and other scientific resources, I will give you more details about the positive effects of breast milk on children’s health.
In Table 1, after analyzing multiple research studies, I presented the best-case scenario for by how much breastfeeding may decrease the incidence of various pediatric health problems in babies, infants, and children.
|Name of the condition affected||Risk of it can be lowered by:…………..%|
|Lower respiratory infections||77%|
|Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – SIDS||73%|
|Upper respiratory infections||70%|
|Diarrhea or Gastroenteritis||64%|
|Inflammatory bowel disease||31%|
|Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia||15%|
|Acute Myeloblastic Leukemia||15%|
Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC)
Necrotizing Enterocolitis is a condition found in some premature babies, particularly babies who were born with a birth weight of less than 1.2 kg and at a gestational age of fewer than 28 weeks. It can be devastating because it may lead to bowel perforation, need for surgeries, and some babies will not be able to survive it.
We do not know what is the exact mechanism of NEC in babies. However, we have ample evidence that feeding babies with maternal or donor breast milk can decrease the incidence and severity of NEC.
Newborn babies who are receiving breast milk exclusively as their diet may reach a 77% reduction in the incidence of NEC comparing to babies receiving cow’s milk based formulas.
Lower Respiratory Tract Infections
The term “Lower Respiratory Tract Infections” encompasses such conditions as bronchitis, bronchiolitis, and pneumonia. Those diseases can be caused by bacterial, viral, or fungal infections and are quite common among children’s populations.
According to the best available evidence, one can decrease the risk of hospitalization in children less than one year of age due to lower respiratory tract infections by 70% – 75%.
This modifying effect on lower respiratory tract infections is even more critical in countries where immunizations for Hemophilus influenza and Streptococcus pneumonia are not available.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections (RSV)
RSV is a virus feared by all parents of premature babies, particularly micro-preemies and extremely premature babies.
As a result of infection with RSV, infected babies may develop severe bronchiolitis and may end up being admitted again to the hospital, and even worse, to the intensive care unit. You can learn more about this infection from my blog article on RSV here.
Breastfeeding seems to modify the risk of hospitalizations due to lower respiratory tract infections, including RSV bronchiolitis. It is an especially significant effect because, by two years of age, almost all children will have undergone at least one RSV infection.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – SIDS
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is a situation in which seemingly healthy infant dies suddenly due to unidentified causes. Everybody knows that the most important preventive measure against SIDS to implement is always to lay your baby to sleep in the “on the back” position.
However, not everybody knows that breastfeeding is also protective against SIDS, and this effect is the strongest if the baby is exclusively breastfed (risk reduction by over 70%). Interestingly, this positive effect on the incidence of SIDS remains even if we analyze babies who were put to sleep not on their backs.
Please note that mothers who breastfeed should not start thinking that they do not need to put their babies to sleep on the back. To prevent SIDS, the only recommended position for your baby to sleep is on its back.
Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (URIs)
Upper respiratory tract infection (URI), also called common cold, is the most common sickness in children. On average, during their first ten years of life, children may have 5-10 episodes of cold per year. Mainly viruses such as Rhinovirus cause common cold symptoms. For most kids it is a benign disease, however often involves need to stay at home instead of going to kindergarten or school.
In infants who exclusively receive breast milk for more than six months for their diet, the risk of upper respiratory tract infection may be lower even by 70%.
Diarrhea or Gastroenteritis
Infants and children frequently suffer from infectious diarrhea caused by such agents as Rotavirus, Shigella, Campylobacter, Escherichia coli, and Salmonella. It has been shown in several studies that the incidence and frequency of those episodes can be positively impacted in children who received any amount of breast milk in their diet. For some populations of children achieved risk reduction may be as high as 64%.
It is speculated that components of breast milk such as immunoglobulin A, some oligosaccharides, and lactoferrin have protective effects against gut infections through so-called passive immunity.
Atopic dermatitis is a widespread skin problem in children, affecting approximately 10% to 20% of them. In atopic dermatitis, skin becomes dry, red, and itchy and is the reason for great concern, especially among new parents.
For infants with a history of allergies in the family who received breast milk, the risk reduction effect on the incidence of atopic dermatitis is 42%. For infants without a history of atopy in the family and who received breast milk in their diet, the risk reduction was lesser, only about 16%.
Acute Otitis Media (AOM) or Ear infections
Otitis media or middle ear infection is a prevalent disease of childhood. Children with a diagnosis of ear infections may present with: fever, irritability, earache, pulling at one or both ears, and hearing problems.
Ear infections can be caused by both viruses and bacteria and sometimes need to be treated with antibiotics. At times, due to prolonged effusions in middle ears and hearing problems, doctors place tubes in the tympanic membranes to allow for drainage of the fluid from the middle ear.
Data showed that exclusive breastfeeding for at least three months is associated with a 50% reduction in the incidence of middle ear infections. Infants who received at least some breast milk in their diet but not exclusively still reached a 23% reduction in their rate of AOM when compared to infants who were only formula-fed.
Asthma or Reactive Airway Disease and other allergies
Asthma is a non-infectious lower respiratory tract disease characterized by breathing difficulties, wheezing, coughing, and the production of thick mucus. Acute execrations of asthma may require a visit to the emergency room or even admission to the hospital. It has been reported that up to 6% of children have at least one asthma attack per year (Statistics)
Researchers found that children with a history of asthma achieved a beneficial effect from being breastfed as high as 48%. Among the breastfed infants in the general population reduction rate for the incidence of asthma ranges from 20 to 40 percent.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel diseases are non-infectious inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract. The two most frequently cited diseases in children are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. I will not talk about diagnosis and differentiation between those two because it is beyond the scope of this article.
Breastfeeding may cause up to a 31% risk reduction in the incidence of childhood inflammatory diseases. The exact mechanism of this positive effect is unknown, but it is speculated that the changed composition of bacterial gut flora in breastfed infants may have a contributory effect.
Acute Leukemias in Children
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) and Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) are two common blood cancers in children. There is some evidence that children who were breastfed as infants for at least six months have a 20% lower risk of developing ALL and a 15% lower risk of developing AML.
Other Health Benefits for Children
There are many other cited benefits of breastfeeding for the baby’s health. Perhaps, they are less studied, but still, many researchers and doctors think they are real, so let’s list them here:
- lower rates of ROP (Retinopathy of Prematurity (in premature tiny babies)
- better visual acuity, particularly in premature babies
- lower rates of infections in newborns hospitalized in NICU
- lower mortality among sick premature babies
- shorter hospitalizations in NICU for tiny babies
- analgesic effects for painful procedures
- lower rates of metabolic syndrome later on in life (lower blood pressures, better lipid profiles)
- better psychomotor development in former premature babies who were fed breast milk
Breastfeeding and breast milk have invaluable short term and long term positive effects on our children’s health. Breastfeeding can influence cognition, respiratory tract, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, the health of the skin, and protect our children from some infections.
Our society and we, as individuals, should do everything to help new mothers establish natural feeding and continue on the path of exclusive breastfeeding.
If you would like to learn what are the benefits of breastfeeding for the mother, you can read my article on this topic here.
- Evid Rep Technol Assess (Full Rep). 2007 Apr;(153):1-186. Breastfeeding and maternal and infant health outcomes in developed countries.
This article is only for general information purposes. It should not be viewed as any medical advice. There is a small chance that information here may be inaccurate. You should always discuss all health-related matters with your doctor before making any decisions that may affect your health or health of your family members.