I know that breastfeeding has many benefits, including oral musculature development in infants. Can you outline the benefits of breastfeeding?
Yes. The research on breastfeeding clearly documents that there are nutritional, immunological, and developmental benefits of human milk consumption. In addition there are social, economic, and environmental advantages for families and for society when infants are fed human milk. More specifically, there is substantial evidence to show that infants who are breastfed, particularly premature infants, have lower incidence of respiratory tract infection, ear infection, and sepsis. There are protective effects of breastfeeding against gastroenteritis and diarrheal diseases. Some of these protective benefits are even more observable in developing countries, but we also see these benefits in the United States and other developed countries. There are also long-term health benefits such as lower rates of obesity and asthma for the breastfed individual. Some newer studies show breastfeeding is protective against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Another body of literature identifies the developmental benefits of breastfeeding showing relationships between breastfeeding and intelligence and motor and cognitive development of the infant. One of the interesting things to consider in this substantial body of literature is that researchers have looked at this relationship in different ways. They have looked at the protective benefit of breastfeeding as well as the risks of feeding artificial formula in relationship to these health outcomes. We do not often think about the risk of feeding artificial formula.
For the mother, there are also benefits of breastfeeding. As with the infant, the mother also has a decreased risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, and breast and ovarian cancers. Newer research is also showing that there is a protective relationship with breastfeeding and postpartum depression, but the direction of that relationship is unclear. For instance, is breastfeeding preventing postpartum depression, or is there a reverse relationship when depression exists creating a barrier to breastfeeding?
Beyond the infant and the mother, there are also health benefits for the family, community, and society. Reduced healthcare costs are just one way those benefits are observed. Bartick and Reinhold in 2010 replicated previous findings that showed if the U.S. met the breastfeeding goals for infants in the United States, it would save $13 billion annually in health care costs. Another societal advantage of breastfeeding is decreased workplace absenteeism. Infants who are breastfed tend to be sick less often; therefore caregivers do not have to miss work as frequently. There are also environmental advantages of breastfeeding related to the decreased need for bottles, nipples, and for other equipment that is used when we are feeding artificial formula.
Editor’s note: This Ask the Expert was adapted from the course, ‘Opportunities for OT in breastfeeding promotion: environmental & contextual interventions’ that is available in text, video and audio course formats.