The benefits of being breast-fed last a lifetime

2012-08-23 00:00

BREAST-FEEDING may seem to be a rather unusual topic for conversation, and one that isn’t often raised. However, many health facilities have been promoting this amazing function of motherhood and during the month of August, South Africans celebrate National Breast-feeding Awareness week.

As we highlighted in my last column, breastmilk remains the best nutrition for the first six months of life. Despite advances in science and technology, breast-feeding remains the best method of nurturing the newborn, encouraging jaw development, and ensuring personalised taste and nutrient delivery to each individual baby. The benefits for mother and baby are numerous in terms of both emotional and physical health.

An influx of recent research has shown that what an infant is fed in the first 1 000 days of life dramatically influences its state of health far into adulthood. The 1 000 days refers to the period from conception up to two years of age.

The World Health Organisation encourages exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life. Exclusive breast-feeding indicates that no fluids are given besides breastmilk, not even water.

Colostrum (the milk produced for the first three days after birth) and breastmilk contain high levels of antibodies. This builds a child’s immunity and its ability to withstand illness, not only through infancy but also into adulthood.

A number of other benefits to the child have been associated with breast-feeding.

• Reduced risk of adult obesity. A study group of 60-year-olds in Finland, who had been breast-fed for at least five months as babies were shown to have the lowest body mass index.

• Lower blood pressure.

• Reduced risk of osteoporosis. Babies breast-fed for three months or longer demonstrated increased bone mass by the age of eight.

• Improved lung function. The immunity factors in breastmilk are protective against respiratory infections in childhood. Also, lung volume is greater in children who are breast-fed for at least four months.

Breast-feeding also has a number of benefits for the mother’s health.

• A faster return to pre-pregnancy weight is associated with exclusive breast-feeding.

• Lower blood pressure. This is of particular benefit to the large number of mothers who commonly have increased blood pressure during pregnancy.

• Reduced stress. Breast-feeding is associated with lower levels of stress hormones, improved moods and enhanced wellbeing. As a new mom-to-be I have heard enough stories to believe that this benefit will be most welcome and necessary.

• Reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, this benefit was only shown to be valid in a most unique group of legendary women — those who had breast-fed for at least 13 months.

• Reduced risk of diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. The longer women breast-fed, the lower their risk was of developing diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease post menopause.

It is amazing that a woman’s body is able to nurture her newborn and also provide remarkable advantages for the child’s future health.

As beneficial as breast-feeding is, it is certainly not the easiest of tasks. Lactation experts are available at hospitals and privately to assist mothers in succeeding at this wonderful task.

Don’t be scared to ask for help.


• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietician. She can be reached at


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