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The Importance of Breastfeeding

Mom, you’re irreplaceable!

“Grandma wisdom”—the knowledge passed down mother-to-mother through generations—has long held that through breast milk, mothers pass on immunities to their babies that help fight viruses and illnesses. Now, researchers are beginning to understand exactly how that protection works.

Continue reading to find out more about how something as natural as breastfeeding can do so much to enhance your baby’s health—throughout his or her lifetime!

Breast milk and a baby’s immune system

A specific kind of protein in breast milk helps jump-start a baby's immune system, researchers have found. The protein, called soluble CD14, works to develop B cells, which are instrumental in the production of antibodies.

Researchers had known about CD14 for some time, but they had not clearly understood its function. Tests at the University of Ontario revealed that human milk and colostrum are rich in CD14.

Breastfeeding and diabetes

Research suggests that breastfeeding might protect babies and their mothers from developing diabetes. Researchers have found that metabolic changes in nursing mothers may help keep blood sugar levels stable and make the body more sensitive to the blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin.

Lower blood-sugar levels seem to be more apparent in breastfeeding mothers than mothers who did not breastfeed. Women who breastfed for at least one year were 15 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who never breastfed. For each additional year of breastfeeding, there was an additional 15 percent decreased risk.

Breastfeeding and heart disease

Researchers discovered that exclusive breastfeeding seems to have a protective effect against certain risk factors of cardiovascular disease. By studying the blood samples of study participants, the researchers found that the adults who were partially or completely bottle-fed had unsatisfactory levels of cholesterol, an indicator of increased risk of cardiovascular disease. They determined that bottle-fed babies have different hormonal responses compared to breastfed babies, and that the fat content in breast milk may protect against overfeeding.

Breastfeeding and allergies

Exclusively breastfed babies are less likely to have food allergies and related problems such as diarrhea, vomiting, eczema, gastrointestinal infections and respiratory infections. Food allergies are thought to begin when foreign proteins enter the bloodstream through the walls of the baby's intestines.

Breast milk helps to protect against allergies. The most abundant factor, called IgA, binds to the foreign proteins, preventing them from passing through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream and causing allergic reactions. By the time the baby is 6 to 9 months old, he or she can produce IgA on her own, but until then breast milk is the baby’s only source.

Breastfeeding and higher IQ

There is a demonstrated direct relation between a child's intelligence and cognitive ability and how long that child was breastfed. Some studies show an increase in intelligence for each additional month the child was breastfed. Why is this so? The brain is only one-third formed at birth; breast milk has been evolutionarily honed over millions of years to help build the brain during the first two years of life.

Researchers in New Zealand studied more than 1,000 children born between April and August 1977. During the period from birth to one year, they gathered information on how these children were fed.

The infants were followed to age 18, during which time researchers collected cognitive and academic information including IQ, performance in reading and math, and results of standardized tests. The results indicated that the longer children had been breastfed, the higher their ranking. Children who were breastfed for eight months or more had, on average, significantly higher test scores than children who were not breastfed.

Breastfeeding and leukemia

Researchers at the University of Minnesota Cancer Center have discovered that breastfeeding lowers the risk of some forms of childhood leukemia. In a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, doctors stated that breastfed infants have up to a 30 percent lower risk of developing leukemia than bottle-fed babies.

From a group of 2,200 children with acute leukemia and another 2,400 children who served as a control group, breastfeeding information was obtained from the children's mothers. Results showed infants who were breastfed for at least one month had a 21 percent lower risk of developing leukemia. For infants who breastfed for six months or longer, the leukemia risk was reduced by up to 30 percent.

Breastfeeding and asthma

The association between breastfeeding and chronic respiratory disorders in children was the topic of a study of more than 5,000 children in Brazil. Researchers reported their findings in the October 2000 edition of the Journal of Asthma, where they revealed that breastfeeding may help protect children from asthma and wheezing.

Ninety percent of the 5,182 children who participated in the study had been breastfed. Researchers found that children who had not been breastfed were 1.51 times more likely to have an asthma diagnosis than children who were breastfed for at least six months. Children who were not breastfed were 1.29 times more likely to have current wheezing and 1.51 times more likely to experience wheezing after exercise than the children who had been breastfed for six months or longer.

Previous studies have also suggested that breastfeeding protects against chronic respiratory disorders. A 1998 study of 2,834 Australian children found that the introduction of milk other than breast milk before four months of age was a significant risk factor for childhood asthma.

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