World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated annually from 1 to 7 August and according to its organiser, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, 'Breastfeeding is the foundation of lifelong good health for babies and mothers.'
What does this good health look like? To help us answer this question, let's highlight some recent research and see how both bubs and mums can benefit from breastfeeding.
For babies, breast milk is the original super food. It's nourishing, nurturing and may also reduce the risk of various health problems. According to Science Daily, 'Past research has shown that breastfed infants have a lower risk for a variety of medical conditions, such as wheezing, infections, asthma and obesity.'
A 2018 study by the San Diego School of Medicine suggests that breast milk may help to prevent future food allergies as well.
This theory rests on complex sugar molecules called 'human milk oligosaccharides' (or HMOs), which are the third most common ingredient in breast milk, after lactose and fat. These HMOs help guide the development of an infant's gut microbiota and scientists think they may help to reduce how sensitive babies are to certain foods.
Assistant professor, Meghan Azad says that food sensitivities during infancy don't always continue into later childhood, however, they are 'strong predictors of future allergic disease,' meaning that by reducing food sensitivities in infants, HMOs may prevent food allergies in older children.
Breastfeeding has also been shown to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and a study by the University of Virginia School of Medicine found that breastfeeding for at least two months (and not necessarily exclusively) almost halves the chance of a baby dying suddenly and unexpectedly.
Meanwhile, a study by the Medical College of Georgia found a 'SWAT team' of infection-fighting immune cells in breast milk. Called 'innate lymphoid cells' (or ILCs) these cells may help protect newborns from infection in their early life, and help them develop their protective immune system over the long-term.
Researchers also think that the ILCs in breast milk might be a way to protect a mum from any infection her breastfeeding baby has. What's more, the cells may be part of a special dynamic that actually changes the breast milk to help the infant get over that infection.
The good news is that as well as benefitting babies, breastfeeding also has a positive effect on mothers' health.
Breastfeeding has been linked with lowering the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and cardiovascular diseases and now a new study suggests it lowers the mum's risk of developing diabetes as well. The 30 year study by Kaiser Permanente has found that breastfeeding for six months or more cuts the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 47 per cent for women throughout their childbearing years.
Senior research scientist, Erica P. Gunderson said they found a very strong association between breastfeeding duration and lower risk of developing diabetes.
"And what this means in percentage terms is that women breastfeeding for less than six months had a 25 per cent reduction of their diabetes risk, while those who breastfed for more than six months had a 47 per cent lower risk," she said.
Breastfeeding for longer may also reduce the chance of a woman developing multiple sclerosis and according to a study published last year, women who breastfeed for 15 months or more may be less likely to develop this autoimmune disease.
Although breastfeeding isn't an option or a choice for every mum, there are certainly many health benefits that come with sharing mother's milk and great reasons to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week.