HomeArticlesFour reasons why breast is best: Babies are smarter, healthier and better...

Four reasons why breast is best: Babies are smarter, healthier and better behaved

Infants are less likely to be obese and mothers’ have a lower risk of cancer.

Most new South African mums start breast-feeding, but they don’t keep at it for long.

By the time infants are rolling over at about the age of six months, almost 99% of them will already have moved off a diet comprised solely of mom’s milk, according to a 2015 article published in the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Babies who are mixed fed fall sick more often, says the World Health Organisation.

It recommends that mothers give their babies breast milk only for the first six months of their lives. The WHO says exclusive breast-feeding – giving your baby nothing other than breast milk, not even water – should start within the first hour after birth.

1. It’s the first – and probably the most painless – vaccine a baby will ever get

Getting your newborn onto breast milk within the first hour of life could literally be life saving. Delaying breast-feeding by even two hours after birth increases your infant’s risk of dying by 40%, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef). An early start to breast-feeding also ensures infants get crucial antibodies from new mothers’ first milk, called colostrum.

Don’t underestimate the importance of that first feeding cuddle either. The skin-to-skin contact keeps a baby warm and promotes mother-baby bonding. Unicef says it also kicks mum’s milk production into high gear, increasing the chances she’ll be able to sustain exclusive breast-feeding for a baby’s first six months of life.

The payoff?

Research shows babies who are exclusively breast-fed for six months are less susceptible to diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia, as well as HIV infection if their mothers are infected.

Growing evidence also suggests that breast-feeding might help kids stave off extra pounds later in life and may protect against diabetes, according to research published in the May edition of The Lancet medical journal.

2. Breast-fed babies may be happier teens and adults

study published in the open-access medical journal PLOS Medicine in June, revealed that infants who are exclusively breastfed for six months are less likely to develop behavioural problems known as conduct disorders. Children with these disorders tend to exhibit a pattern or aggressive, deceitful or destructive behaviour, says the WHO.

The study was carried out among more than 1 500 South African children and found that children who were exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives were about half (56%) as likely to develop conduct disorders during their childhood years than those who had not been exclusively breast-fed for that period.

While conduct disorders usually start in childhood, they can persist into adolescence with consequences for teenagers’ future selves.

“Later in life they [conduct disorders] are associated with an increase in antisocial, and potentially violent and criminal behaviours, poor long-term mental health and low academic achievement,” lead researcher Tamsen Rochat of the Human Science Research Council told Bhekisisa in June.

Unicef says keeping breast milk in a baby’s diet as parents begin adding in other foods at six months may also improve cognitive ability, leading to better marks at school and more productive – and higher earning – employees later.

3. Mums who breast-fed are less likely to get cancer

Breastfeeding mums have a lower risk of breast cancer, according to a May article published in The Lancet medical journal. In an analysis of existing studies, researchers found that women logged about a 4% decrease in breast cancer risk for every 12-month period they spent breastfeeding. They also estimated that increasing breastfeeding rates could avert 20 000 breast cancer-related deaths annually among the world’s mothers.

The Lancet article says breast-feeding may also lower a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer by 30% and could help protect against type 2 diabetes.

4. Breast milk is free

Breast milk doesn’t cost anything and is always available at the right temperature with the perfect mix of ingredients that a baby needs at that time.

But feeding your baby in public can be complex.

South African mums have become increasingly vocal about their right to breast-feed – one irate mother created the Twitter hashtag, “#BreastfeedAnywhereAnytime”.

Twitter user Sizile Makola came up with the hashtag after she was chastised for feeding her infant daughter in her paediatrician’s waiting room. The hashtag may have prompted widespread media coverage, but it hasn’t stopped subsequent women going public with similar complaints against, for instance, major fast food chains.

In a statement last week, South African health minister Aaron Motsoaledi blamed negative attitudes towards breastfeeding alongside unsupportive home and work environments, for low breastfeeding rates in the country. He called for spaces to be created for breast-feeding moms at taxi ranks, airports and shopping centres.

Motsoaledi said: “Families must respect the mother’s decision to breastfeed her baby and help her with routine household chores. Employers can provide a supportive environment for mothers to breastfeed or express milk.”

 Are you a new mom who is not afraid to #BreastfeedAnywhere or wish you were? Tell us about your experiences. Tweet us at @Bhekisisa_MG using this hashtag.

Laura Lopez Gonzalez is a freelance health journalist and editor. She was Bhekisisa's news editor then deputy editor between 2016 and 2020.