Caroline Donoghue, nutritionist, reviews the key benefits of breastfeeding.
Hi, I'm Caroline, a registered nutritionist and mum to my 2.5 year old son Romaric. I live in Islington, North London, where breastfeeding is encouraged and where I was lucky enough to have a breastfeeding specialist come to my house for free.
It wasn't always easy at first. Someone had told me it would come naturally, but it didn't for me. I found it complicated to find the right position and I needed help!
The practical advice and support I received was outstanding.
I breastfed exclusively for 6 months and then switched to mixed breastfeeding until my son was 9 months old. My breastfeeding journey was a bit of a rollercoaster: I had two very painful mastitis (inflammation of the breast), one of which put me in hospital for a few days.
When things get tough, it's important to remember the incredible benefits of breastfeeding.
So what are they?
It adapts to your baby's needs.
It sounds simple but it really is magic. The composition of your milk varies with the time of day and during lactation. It changes as your baby grows.
For example, in hot weather, breastmilk becomes more liquid because your baby needs more moisture. In the cold months, the milk will offer your baby a higher fat content.
At night, your milk will contain more melatonin (the sleep hormone) so your baby can sleep better. So if you are using a breast pump, make sure you note the time of day.
When feeding in the evening, only use your milk that you pump after dark as this can influence the sleep patterns of infants(1).
It meets all your baby's nutritional, growth and developmental needs.
Breastmilk is perfectly prepared for infants to digest. It contains all the nutrients they need for the first 6 months of life, including fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals and water (2).
The exception is vitamin D, for which a supplement may be needed unless you and your baby have sufficient exposure to the sun. Check with your doctor for supplementation.
Finally, it is not recommended to introduce solid foods before 6 months of age (2,3).
It protects your baby against disease
Breast milk offers many immune components (4).
It contains antibodies that help protect infants from common illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.
These are produced by your body to prevent bacteria from entering the cells. The predominant antibody is secretory IgA. Artificial milks do not contain these antibodies found in breast milk.
It increases the richness and diversity of the gut microbiota
If you haven't heard of gut microbiota, it is simply all the micro-organisms, including fungi and bacteria, that live in the digestive tract (from the mouth to the anus).
A healthy gut is necessary for good health and is our first line of defence against the outside world.
The bacteria in our gut take care of many different functions such as the synthesis of neurotransmitters and vitamins.
These bacteria also help us to digest and extract nutrients from the food we eat. The gut microbiota is so complex that I would need a whole book to talk about it!
But the fact is that your child needs a diverse microbiota and research shows that breastfed babies have almost twice as many gut bacterial cells (5).
This is even more important for infants born by caesarean section as they already have a lower gut microbial richness than vaginally born infants (5).
It helps create an emotional bond between you and your baby
During breastfeeding, your body produces the hormones prolactin and oxytocin, which reduce maternal stress and create a strong bond with your baby (6).
Breastfeeding can also help support the mother's mental health and reduce the risk of postpartum depression (6).
Surprisingly, prolactin is produced more at night, making us feel relaxed and sleepy.
Even if you are breastfeeding at night, your hormones are there to help you rest and feel better! (2).
It reduces the mother's risk of disease
Research is linking breastfeeding to the prevention of certain diseases (including breast and ovarian cancer as well as type 2 diabetes and heart disease (2,3,7)).
At the end of the day, I look back and remember the incredible bonding moment with my son. It doesn't last long, so enjoy it while you can!
By now you know all the benefits of breastfeeding but I wanted to end this article by saying that every woman does what she can.
Let's support each other and help each other so that those who are willing and able can breastfeed as much as possible.
Worldwide, according to the WHO, 44% of infants aged 0-6 months are exclusively breastfed (2). England and France have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world (2.7). I believe it is the government's responsibility to look at the bigger picture and support mothers, but together we can already start to move in the right direction.
1. Cohen Engler A, Hadash A, Shehadeh N, Pillar G. Breastfeeding may improve nocturnal sleep and reduce infantile colic: Potential role of breast milk melatonin. European Journal of Pediatrics. 2011;171(4):729-732.
2. Infant and Young Child Feeding: Model Chapter for Textbooks for Medical Students and Allied Health Professionals. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2009. SESSION 3, Complementary feeding.
3. WHO (2020) 10 facts on breastfeeding [Internet]. World Health Organization. [Available from: https://www.who.int/features/factfiles/breastfeeding/en/
4. M'Rabet L, Vos A, Boehm G, Garssen J. Breast-Feeding and Its Role in Early Development of the Immune System in Infants: Consequences for Health Later in Life. The Journal of Nutrition. 2008;138(9):1782S-1790S.
5. Moore R, Townsend S. Temporal development of the infant gut microbiome. Open Biology. 2019;9(9):190128.
6. Liu J, Leung P, Yang A. Breastfeeding and Active Bonding Protects against Children’s Internalizing Behavior Problems. Nutrients [Internet]. 2013;6(1):76-89. Available from: http://10.3390/nu6010076
7. Unicef - Breastfeeding in the UK - Baby Friendly Initiative [Internet]. Baby Friendly Initiative. 2020 Available from: