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The benefits of breastfeeding

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Right from the start, breastfeeding offers benefits that will help protect your baby for years to come. Colostrum, your first milk, is nutritionally complete and contains essential antibodies, and as your milk adapts to your baby’s growing needs, it will continue to nourish them and support healthy development.

There are many benefits to breastfeeding. Your breast milk is the best food for your baby as it contains all the nutrients they need for around the first six months of life, and helps to support their immune system.

Straight after birth and for the first few days of breastfeeding, your breast milk contains colostrum, which is full of antibodies that help protect your baby from infections. Colostrum is low in fat and high in protein.

Continuing breastfeeding is important to make sure your baby will benefit from the antibodies in your breast milk on an ongoing basis. As you come into contact with new infections, your baby will automatically get some immunity from them too. Further benefits of breastfeeding your baby include a reduced risk of developing eczema, asthma and allergies later in life. It has also been shown to reduce the likelihood of obesity later on, and as a result, any related conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

Breastfeeding helps cement the connection between mother and child.

The oligosaccharides found naturally in breast milk are special carbohydrates that can encourage the growth of friendly bacteria in the digestive system. A healthy level of these good bacteria can help prevent potentially harmful bacteria attaching to the wall of the stomach, supporting your baby's natural defences from the inside.

Your baby needs a continuous supply of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPs) which are provided by your breast milk from birth. LCPs are important for the development of their brain, eyes and nervous system, which grow fast. So make sure you continue to eat foods such as oily fish, which are rich in LCPs.

Believe it or not, your milk production will adapt to your baby's needs – the more often you feed, the more milk you will produce. The complex composition of your breast milk constantly changes to meet their developing nutritional requirements too.

Breastfeeding helps bonding

Another benefit of breastfeeding is that it helps cement the connection between mother and child. Holding your baby while they're feeding provides intimacy through skin-to-skin contact. This closeness comforts your baby whilst helping to regulate their heart beat and body temperature.

Health benefits for you too

Breastfeeding has health benefits for mums as well. One study suggested there could be a beneficial effect on postpartum weight loss for women who breastfeed beyond six months1. Although more research is needed in this area, we know that breastfeeding naturally uses up to 500 calories a day2.

Breastfeeding can also delay the return of your menstrual cycle, which will help maintain your iron status. You’re also less likely to get pregnant if you’re nursing at least every four hours, although this is not considered an effective method of contraception.

Recent studies have found that breastfeeding has a number of other long-term advantages for mums. It's said to improve the metabolism and reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer3. Some evidence suggests that extended breastfeeding may also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes4. The benefits are dose related, which means that the more exclusively and the longer you breastfeed, the higher the overall benefits.

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1. Dewey KG, Heinig MJ, Nommsen LA. Maternal weight-loss patterns during prolonged lactation. Am J Clin Nutr. 1993;58 (2): 162–6.

2. NHS. Why Breastfeed? [Online]. 2012. Available at: [Accessed: April 2014]

3. Baby Friendly Initiative. Breastfeeding Research – An Overview [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: April 2014]

4. Stube A et al. Duration of Lactation and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes. JAMA 2005;294: 2601-2610.

Last reviewed: 28th July 2014

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