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The benefits of breast milk for both baby and mom

Thursday, May 30, 2019
By Emily A. Hannon, MD, IBCLC, for KidsFirst
baby breastfeeding

As a pediatrician, I see mothers doing the best for their babies everyday by trying to keep them healthy, happy and safe. As a mother myself, I know that can sometimes be overwhelming. Babies don’t come with instruction manuals, but there are some well-established things you can do to keep your baby healthy.  And, there are plenty of resources to help moms and dads adjust to their new roles as parents.

One of the things that is most beneficial for baby and mom is breast milk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants be breastfed exclusively for the first six months and that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mother and baby desire.

Breast milk is the only food your baby needs until about six months of age, and there’s a long list of its benefits. Breast milk is always ready and doesn't cost anything--you don't need to mix formula or clean bottles. Giving breast milk lowers your child's risk for many illnesses and health problems including diarrhea and upset stomach, urinary tract infections, illnesses that affect the respiratory tract or breathing, ear infections and allergies. Breastfed babies have less chance of going into the hospital because of an infection in the first year of life. And giving breast milk has even been shown to help prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Breastfeeding also may protect against other health problems later on, such as asthma, diabetes, obesity and eczema.

Breast milk is tailor-made by each mom specifically for her baby.

In fact, unlike formula which only provides a baby nutrition, breast milk provides nutrition and protection. Breast milk is tailor-made by each mom specifically for her baby. It contains antibodies to harmful bacteria and germs, which uniquely protect her baby, especially when moms are ill.  I often hear moms worry that they should stop breastfeeding while they have a cold or illness, but actually just the opposite is true. The antibodies that mom’s body is making to fight off her infection get passed directly to her baby, making it less likely that the baby will get sick. 

As you can see, there is a lot of evidence about the benefits of breast milk and risks of not giving breast milk. How you feed your baby is a personal decision, and some mothers choose not to breastfeed. For others, it may seem like you have done everything you can, but breastfeeding still doesn’t work out. That happens sometimes, and you are still an amazing mother even if you cannot  breastfeed, or choose not to.  Your medical team will support you and your baby regardless of your breastfeeding preferences.

Here are some questions to think about, and tips to get the help you need:

  • Do you want to give breast milk? With the right teaching and support, most women who want to breastfeed are able to do so. Talk to your doctor if you have had breast surgery or have been treated for breast cancer. Some surgeries can limit your ability to produce breast milk. Before your baby is born, plan ahead and learn all you can about breastfeeding, which will make breastfeeding easier.
  • Do you know someone who can teach you about breastfeeding? Breastfeeding is a natural process, but it can take a little practice for both you and your baby to do it well. Doctors, nurses, and lactation specialists can all help. So can friends, family, and breastfeeding support groups.
  • Are you comfortable with breastfeeding? If you are modest or have other concerns about breastfeeding, a lactation specialist can help. For example, she can show you how to breastfeed in public.
  • Is anyone else trying to convince you one way or the other? Do what is right for you and your baby. Don't let others make this decision for you.
  • How does your work or school situation affect your decision? Many women are able to provide breast milk even when they are away from their baby. You can learn how to use a breast pump to express milk so your baby can have breast milk even when you are not able to be there to feed them. Just like deciding who will take care of your baby when you return to work or school, it is important to think about the practical issues of pumping ahead of time. North Carolina law provides rights and protections for breastfeeding moms--you can find out more from your doctor or lactation consultant.
  • Is the cost of formula a concern? Formula can be very expensive. You may save money if you breastfeed your baby. And, if you qualify for WIC (Women, Infants, and Children Food and Nutrition Service), you can actually get food for you and your whole family if you choose to give breast milk to your baby.
  • How can a breastfeeding mom keep dad or a partner involved? I often hear moms say that they decided not to breastfeed because they wanted dad or their partner to be more involved by feeding the baby a bottle. In fact, there are a lot that dads and partners can do to be involved and supportive of breastfeeding. When my three daughters were babies, my husband’s job was to get up at night with them. He would change the diapers, wrap them back up and deliver the snuggly girl to me, ready to be breastfed. He was a huge help to me, and he really enjoyed that bonding time, too.

Think about and learn about breastfeeding before your baby arrives. Ask family, friends, and your doctors to help set you up for breastfeeding success!

The key is to ask for help early and often. If you want to breastfeed your new baby and are having difficulties, reach out to your doctor, your baby’s pediatrician or a lactation consultant.  After your baby is born, ask your hospital nurse for help with breastfeeding.  Once you are at home with your baby, keep asking for help if you need it.

There is plenty of evidence to support the many health benefits of giving breast milk for both baby and mom. Our community has many resources and sources of support to make this journey as successful as possible.

Emily Hannon, MD, is a pediatrician and medical director of the Newborn Nursery at the Duke Birthing Center. Dr. Hannon is also a board-certified lactation consultant, and works closely with Duke’s team of lactation consultants. She graduated from Middlebury College and the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Dr. Hannon enjoys spending time with her husband and three young daughters hiking, swimming, and eating ice cream. 

Related Video

Emily Hannon, MD, IBLC, discusses the benefits of breastfeeding and pumping.


“KidsFirst” is a blog, hosted by the Duke Department of Pediatrics, that provides high quality information to families on a wide range of important child health topics.