What is the evidence that breast is best?
A landmark Lancet series on breastfeeding in January last year was categorical. “Breast milk makes the world healthier, smarter, and more equal,” it said. It protects against infections, because a mother’s milk contains antibodies and immune cells. Exclusively breastfed infants in low and middle-income countries have only 12% of the risk of death of those who are not breastfed, the Lancet found.
Is the benefit only in poorer countries?
No. Even for infections, the Lancet found six good studies showing babies that had ever been breastfed had a 36% lower chance of sudden infant death syndrome, better known as cot death. It also had a protective effect against necrotising enterocolitis, a severe gut condition which can kill babies in any setting. Breastfeeding protected against diarrhoea, respiratory infections, dental problems and glue ear (otitis media).
What about allergies?
There was a small effect against asthma but not other allergic disorders such as eczema or food allergies.
Were there any long-term benefits?
Yes. Breastfeeding protected babies against becoming overweight and obese later in life. It also protected against type 2 diabetes, which can be weight-related. There was no impact on blood pressure or total cholesterol.
Can it actually improve a child’s brain power?
Breastfeeding has been shown to play a role in fostering a young child’s brain development and cognitive capacity. Some studies showed that children who had been breastfed had a 3.4 point higher IQ than those who had not, the Lancet series said. Studies that took into account the IQ of the mother found a smaller improvement, of 2.6 points, in breastfed babies.
Are there any benefits for the mother?
Yes. Studies show lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer in women who breastfeed.
How many women can’t breastfeed?
Medical literature suggests between 1 and 5% of women cannot produce enough milk to feed their baby. However, others may have problems because they are anxious, exhausted or depressed and are not given enough support in the early days. Some others will actively make the choice not to breastfeed.
Is formula milk the same as breast milk?
No. According to Which?, formula is derived from cow’s or goat’s milk and contains about 75 ingredients, while breast milk has an estimated 300. Formula is marketed as infant formula, with follow-on from the age of six months. Unicef claims the industry’s marketing and promotion is “a significant barrier to breastfeeding”. Its Call to Action campaign document last year said: “The UK has the 11th largest BMS [breast milk substitutes] market in the world, with sales projected to reach $907m (£688m) by 2019.”
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