For many women, breastfeeding is a special, intimate time with baby, but the benefits go beyond forming an emotional connection. Breastfeeding builds a child's immune system and is thought to offer some protection for everything from the common cold to some forms of childhood cancers, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The longer you can breastfeed, the better, though each woman must decide what works best for her and her baby.
Human breast milk contains balanced amounts of sugar and fat for optimal growth, as well as thousands of components that boost the immune system. Breastfeeding for even a few weeks helps boost your baby's immunity, says the AAP, but breastfeeding for the first year seems to provide the greatest benefit. Breastfeed your baby exclusively, if possible, for the first six months. You can introduce solid food after that time, but it is optimal to also continue to offer the breast until your baby is at least a year old.
From Three to Four Months
Infants who are breastfed during the first four months of life are less likely to be hospitalized for respiratory illnesses, such as croup or pneumonia, says the National Resources Defense Council. A 2006 review published in "The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association" found that babies who were breastfed during the first three months also suffered fewer ear infections and diarrheal illnesses. The thymus -- an organ that plays a central role in immune function -- is twice as large in breastfeeding babies at 4 months of age compared with formula-fed babies of the same age. This may indicate more mature functioning of the organ. Children who were breastfed during the first three months of life have a 34-percent lower risk of developing juvenile diabetes than those who were formula-fed, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and a 20- to 30-percent lower risk of childhood diabetes.
Benefits for Life
A few months of breastfeeding -- six months or more -- may result in benefits for life. Some of these benefits are quite significant. For example, children who breastfeed for longer than six months are less likely to develop childhood cancers than babies who were formula fed, says the AAP. Rates of sudden infant death syndrome and adolescent obesity seem to be lower as well. Additionally, adults who were breastfed as babies have a reduced risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. While the reasons for these results are still being studied, breastfeeding for an extended period appears to be a contributing factor.
Whether you wish to breastfeed for three months or 12, get support from a breastfeeding expert and develop a plan for managing breastfeeding at work before the baby arrives. Breastfeeding isn't always easy, and you may need help to make it work. Remember, however, that breastfeeding is only one aspect of raising a healthy, happy child. A healthy lifestyle maintained throughout childhood offers the best chance for long-term wellness.