Your baby has arrived! For a new mother, it’s a joyous time to bond with and care for your bundle of joy. Breastfeeding is the most natural way to nourish your little one and provides many benefits for mother and baby alike.

Why is breastfeeding important? 

Breastfeeding, also known as nursing, is the process of feeding a child through human breast milk. Breastfeeding is important because it provides optimal nutrition for babies, offers many health benefits for mother and baby, and helps promote bonding between parent and child. 

What are the benefits of breastfeeding? 

Breastfeeding is a natural form of nourishment and comes with many benefits for both mother and baby. 

Breastfeeding benefits for baby

Research studies have shown that babies receive more than nourishment from breast milk, and the benefits are notable. 

In the short-term, breastfeeding:

  • helps support the development of a baby’s immune system; 
  • enhances brain development; 
  • reduces the risk of dangerous conditions such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), necrotizing enterocolitis (a serious gastrointestinal infection from which premature babies are most at risk) and other pediatric infections. 

In addition, research has shown that babies who are breastfed receive long-term benefits, including reduced risk for chronic diseases such as asthma, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes mellitus, as well as certain cancers including lymphoma and leukemia. In short, breastfed babies may be healthier adults. 

Breastfeeding benefits for mother

While babies benefit from breastfeeding in many ways, it also has benefits for mom. Short-term, breastfeeding causes the release of the hormone oxytocin which helps accelerate recovery from childbirth while also decreasing anxiety and promoting a sense of calm. Mothers also gain long-term benefits from breastfeeding, including a lower risk for breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers; cardiovascular disease; and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

How long do you have to breastfeed for benefits? 

The longer one breastfeeds, the greater the benefits and protections for mother and baby. Breastfeeding is recommended for at least one year. 

Breast milk versus formula - similarities and differences

Both breast milk and formula provide the energy, nutrients, and hydration your baby needs. The important difference is that the contents of breast milk are dynamic and change with the immunity and nutrition needs of the baby. For example, when a breastfeeding mother has an infection, the baby receives protective antibodies through the breast milk that would not be found in formula.  

Disadvantages and risks of breastfeeding

While breastfeeding has clear advantages, some mothers can experience discomfort and stress if there are complications with breastfeeding, including issues with the baby latching on, and developing and maintaining an adequate milk supply. Early and frequent lactation support is key to help overcome these challenges. 

When is breastfeeding not recommended?

Some mothers may have certain medical conditions or infections or may require medications that are not compatible with breastfeeding. Your doctor can discuss this with you. 

Mothers who use illicit drugs are not recommended to breastfeed due to the risk for passing harmful substances to the baby. Donor breastmilk may be a safer option in these circumstances.   

Talk with your doctor or a lactation consultant for more information about breastfeeding. If you're having trouble nursing your baby, our Breastfeeding Medicine program can help. 

Courtney Clark Bilodeau, MD, FACP

Dr. Courtney Clark Bilodeau is a physician in obstetric medicine at the Women's Medicine Collaborative, with clinical and research interests that include breastfeeding, evidence-based complementary medicine, and peripartum management of chronic medical conditions from preconception through postpartum.