Breastfeeding offers a host of benefits to both mother and baby, including a stronger immune system for the baby and faster weight loss for mom.
There are even some known psychological benefits from breastfeeding, such as a stronger parent-child bond.
But researchers have discovered another mental bonus - children who are breastfed seem to cope with stress and anxiety more effectively when they reach school age, according to a report in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood.
In a group of almost 9,000 children between the ages of five and 10, children who were not breastfed and whose parents were getting divorced or separated were 9.4 times more likely to be highly anxious when compared to other children.
But, children who were breastfed as infants and whose parents were getting divorced were only 2.2 times as likely to be highly anxious, the study found.
"Breastfeeding is associated with resilience against the psychosocial stress linked with parental divorce/separation," the study's authors say.
The authors theorize that the physical contact between mother and child in the first few days of life could help form certain neural and hormonal pathways that affect a person's ability to cope with stress later in life.
Breastfeeding experts have long been aware of the mother-baby bond that occurs during breastfeeding.
"There's a lot less verbal communication, but lots of tactile communication and eye contact that promotes positive physiological responses," says Liz Maseth, RN, an outpatient lactation consultant at Akron's Children's Hospital.
"Breastfeeding does seem to suppress stress responses in babies, and it does seem that there's a protective effect," she says.
"In terms of the biological possibility, breast milk is pretty amazing stuff, and the tactile interaction that goes along with breastfeeding does have an influence on the development of neurons," explains Judy Hopkinson, Ph.D., at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
Dr. Hopkinson adds that babies who are not breastfed may be able to reap similar benefits with lots of holding and touching.
The study authors also suggest that the bond created during breastfeeding might affect the way the child and the mother interact, and that effect might be long-lasting.
Dr. Hopkinson points out that mothers who are successful at breastfeeding often have a supportive social network, which could also help lessen a child's stress in times of crisis.
Whatever the reason for the association, it was clear that children who had been breastfed were less stressed.
Both Maseth and Dr. Hopkinson say it is very important to try to begin breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth - no more than one hour.
Maseth says this is because the breasts contain glands that release the same scent as amniotic fluid, a scent that babies will recognize.
"For most mothers, breastfeeding doesn't come naturally,” she says. “If the baby doesn't latch on, it can lead to feelings of failure and concern about whether or not the baby is getting enough milk. Women need lots of encouragement and education.”
"Don't give up, though, seek help," she advises, adding that your baby's pediatrician will likely have information on what local breastfeeding resources are available.
"Breastfeeding is something for mothers and babies to enjoy,” says Dr. Hopkinson.
For women who cannot breastfeed, she says, that skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby can also help build a similar bond.
Always consult your child's physician for more information.
There are many reasons why breast milk is the best milk, including the following:
Human survival depends more on brain power than on strong muscles, rapid growth (rapid maturity), or body size, so your milk is rich in the nutrients that best promote brain growth and nervous system development. Research has found that breastfed babies perform better on different kinds of intelligence tests as they grow older. They also develop better eye function. This is due mostly to certain types of fat (fatty acid chains) in human milk, which are not available in artificial formulas.
The sugar (carbohydrate) and protein in breast milk are also designed to be used easily and more completely by the human baby. Your milk is the perfect first food to help your baby achieve every aspect of ideal growth and development.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies who are exclusively breastfed receive additional vitamin D. Your baby's physician can recommend the proper type and amount of vitamin D supplement for your baby.
Only human milk is alive with many different kinds of disease-fighting factors that help prevent mild to severe infections. Babies who are fully or almost-fully breastfed, or breast milk-fed babies, have significantly fewer gastrointestinal, respiratory, ear, and urinary infections.
Antibodies in human milk directly protect against infection. Other anti-infective factors create an environment that is friendly to "good" bacteria, referred to as "normal flora," and unfriendly to "bad" bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Human milk also appears to have properties that help a baby's own immune system work best. If your baby does become ill when breastfeeding and receiving your milk, the infection is likely to be less severe.
Since nature designed human milk for human babies, your milk is the most easily digested food your baby can receive. A nutritious, yet easily digested first food is important for a baby's immature digestive tract. Your baby uses less energy, yet breaks your milk down more completely into its basic ingredients, so the nutrients, anti-infective factors, and all the other ingredients in your milk are more available to fuel your baby's body functions and to promote your baby's growth and development.
Bio-availability is a fancy way of referring to how well the body can use the nutrients in a food. The high bio-availability of nutrients in human milk means your baby gets more benefits from the nutrients it contains - even for nutrients that appear in lower levels in breast milk when compared to artificial formulas (because your baby's body can absorb and use them most effectively). It also means your baby saves the energy that would be needed to eliminate any nutrients he/she had difficulty digesting or using.
Your milk is best suited to, and so it is more gentle on, your baby's body systems. The suitability of your milk plays a role in your milk's digestibility, and it allows your baby's body to function most efficiently while spending a lot less energy on body functions.
Suitability is also thought to be one reason that breastfed babies are less likely to develop allergic-related skin conditions and asthma.
The digestibility, bio-availability, and suitability of your milk means that your baby's body is able to work less yet receive more nourishment.
Always consult your child's physician for more information.