The facts on breastfeeding

Breast milk has many known benefits. The longer you breast-feed, the greater these benefits are to you and your baby and, in many cases, the longer they last.

Breast milk provides babies with:

• Ideal nutrition. Breast milk has just the right nutrients, in just the right amounts, to nourish your baby completely. It contains the fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals that a baby needs for growth, digestion and brain development. Breast milk is also individualized; the composition of your breast milk changes as your baby grows.

• Protection against disease. Research shows that breast milk may help keep your baby from getting sick. It provides antibodies that help your baby's immune system fight off common childhood illnesses. Breast-fed babies tend to have fewer colds, ear infections and urinary tract infections than do babies who aren't breast-fed. Breast-fed babies may also have less asthma, food allergies and skin conditions, such as eczema. They may be less likely to experience a reduction in the number of red blood cells (anemia). Breastfeeding may offer a slight reduction in the risk of childhood leukemia.

Breast milk may even protect against disease long term. As adults, people who were breast-fed may have a lowered risk of heart attack and stroke — due to lower cholesterol levels — and may be less likely to be obese and to develop diabetes. Breast-feeding, research suggests, might also help to protect against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), also known as crib death.

• Easy digestion. In addition to its health benefits, breast milk is easier for babies to digest than formula or cow's milk. Because breast milk doesn't remain in the stomach as long as formula, breast-fed babies spit up less. They have less gas and less constipation. They also have less diarrhea, because breast milk appears to kill some diarrhea-causing germs and helps the baby's digestive system grow and function.

• Other benefits. Nursing at the breast also helps promote normal development of your baby's jaw and facial muscles. It may even help your baby have fewer cavities later in childhood.

For mothers, breast-feeding:

• Shrinks the uterus more quickly. The baby's suckling triggers your body to release oxytocin, a hormone that causes your uterus to contract. This means that the uterus returns to its pre-pregnant size more quickly after delivery than it would if you bottle-feed.

• Suppresses ovulation. Breast-feeding delays the return of ovulation and therefore your period, which may help extend the time between pregnancies.

• May protect long-term health. Breast-feeding may reduce your risk of getting breast cancer before menopause. Breast-feeding also appears to provide some protection from uterine and ovarian cancers.

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