Dr. Sarah Livelo 18 Aug 2021

What is breast milk?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recognize breast milk as the most optimal for infant nutrition. It is a safe and natural way of providing infants’ nutritional needs in the first months of life.

Breast milk is special in the sense that it can adapt its contents to the specific needs of an infant. Breast milk contains proteins, amino acids, complex sugars (oligosaccharides), long-chain fatty acids, microRNAs, enzymes, growth factors, white blood cells and antibodies, vitamins, minerals and hormones.

The following are unique components of breast milk that play an important role in a baby’s growth and development:

Antibacterial factors

Breast milk contains antibacterial factors, such as secretory IgA, oligosaccharides and cytokines, that help fight against bacterial infections. Lactoferrin helps mount an immune defense and balance the amount of iron in the body.

Growth factors

Breast milk also provides growth factors. This includes epidermal growth factor for intestinal growth, and nerve growth factor for neurodevelopment. Studies show that transforming growth factors may help prevent development of allergies.


Other unique ingredients in breast milk are enzymes that help with normal body processes. Nucleotides help enhance the body’s immune response and play a role in protein utilization. Based on studies, PAF-acetylhydrolase in breast milk may prevent necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious condition in preterm newborns. Another enzyme, glutathione peroxidase, has been shown to help decrease inflammation.

The benefits of breast milk and breastfeeding go beyond its contents. There are innumerable advantages for both the infant and the mother.

Benefits for Mothers

Most mothers may be surprised that the act of breastfeeding can provide comfort and ease, especially after the birthing process. In general, breastfeeding has short term and long term benefits for mothers.

A. Short Term Benefits

Less bleeding

The process of giving birth takes a huge toll on one’s body. However, initiating breastfeeding within the first hour of delivery can help mothers recover faster. As an infant suckles on the mother’s breast, the nipples are stimulated, causing a feedback mechanism in the body that leads to the secretion of oxytocin. This is a hormone that signals the uterus to contract, lessening the amount of blood lost after childbirth.

Decrease stress and pain

The act of breastfeeding within the first hour of life facilitates a strong emotional bond between parent and child. This in turn decreases the level of stress hormones that could otherwise prevent a mother from relaxing at a crucial time in the birthing process. Breastfeeding may also help lessen the overall physical pain mothers feel after delivery.

Weight loss

Some reports suggest a link between breastfeeding and postpartum weight loss. Mothers who nurse their infants may experience a quicker return to their pre-pregnancy weight.

B. Long Term Benefits

Family planning

Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months can delay a mother’s monthly ovarian cycle. This is a natural method of contraception and family planning. When breastfeeding is continued beyond 6 months of age, this natural method may possibly extend to a 2 year gap from a future pregnancy.

Having at least 6 months between pregnancies allows the body to restore healthy amounts of essential nutrients, iron in particular, to avoid anemia and nutrient deficiencies.

Cardiovascular and metabolic disease

Some studies report a decrease in the risk of heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome in women who have at least 12 months of breastfeeding, combined from all their pregnancies.


Although there is some mineral loss in bones during pregnancy, the bone mineral density in lactating women returns to normal levels afterwards. Breastfeeding may even increase this beyond pre-pregnancy levels by stimulating absorption of calcium.


As a mother continues to breastfeed for the first six months, her body does not undergo ovulation. This leads to less exposure to hormones, especially estrogen, which is essential to the development of breast or ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding also allows for healthy shedding of breast tissue, which eliminates cells that may have already incurred damaged or mutated DNA.

Emotional security

Studies and interviews with mothers show that breastfeeding positively affects women’s confidence and sense of self-worth. Successful breastfeeding sessions lead to a feelings of happiness and mutual love between women and their infants. Most mothers feel that breastfeeding fosters sensitivity to their baby’s needs, allowing them to easily comfort their newborn child.

Benefits for Infants

Breast milk definitely provides a multitude of benefits for infants. This includes a stronger immunity and better overall growth and development.

Prevention of acute pediatric disorders

Breastfed infants have a decreased risk of developing infections, such as acute otitis media (middle ear infection), acute gastroenteritis, lower respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections and sepsis (bloodstream infection). For preterm infants, breast milk decreases the risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis (inflammation of the intestines). If these infants do catch any of these illnesses, they are reported to have a shorter duration and less severe clinical course.

Another well-studied benefit of breastfeeding is a reduced incidence of sudden infant death syndrome. Also known as SIDS, this is a disorder characterized by the sudden death of a healthy infant while asleep, for an unknown reason, despite an extensive evaluation or assessment.

As mentioned earlier, the presence of immunoglobulins and growth factors boost an infant’s immune system, giving a stronger defense against common viral and bacterial infections.

Prevention of chronic pediatric disorders

In the long run, breastfeeding is also crucial to decreasing the chances of developing chronic disorders. Some of these include bronchial asthma, atopic dermatitis, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes mellitus, obesity, and even leukemia, the most common childhood cancer.

Breast milk contains factors that help speed up the maturation of immune cells in the gastrointestinal tract. Although the mechanisms aren’t fully clear yet, breast milk has also been shown to help regulate infants’ weight and satiety levels.

Cognitive development

Multiple studies have focused on the effects of breastfeeding on cognitive development. Breast milk improves overall neural growth and development of brain tissue. Breastfed children, as well as preterms who were fed with breast milk, were noted to have advanced neurodevelopmental growth. This encompasses developmental milestones, visual acuity, academic achievement and behavior.

Decreases pain

Breast milk and the act of breastfeeding may help blunt the perception of pain in infants who undergo painful procedures while admitted, such as blood extraction and intravenous line insertions.

Benefits for the Family and Society

The advantages of lactation go beyond the mother and infant. The family and society also (indirectly) benefit from the choice to breastfeed.

Family benefits

Families can decrease financial burdens by opting for breastfeeding. Choosing to provide infant formula or use donor breast milk will incur additional expenses, such as infant bottles, sterilized water, sterilization equipment, and other related feeding devices.

Effects on the Economy

Mother-friendly workplaces and businesses provides an easier adjustment for breastfeeding mothers as they return to work. This allows for less absences at work, less costs for company health care (if applicable), and minimal income loss for these mothers.


Breastfeeding further impacts the environment. Choosing to breastfeed contributes to environmental conservation by decreasing the demand for non-biodegradable infant feeding products, which are usually made of plastic. This also decreases energy demands that are required for transport and production of these materials.


The choice to breastfeed and the use of breast milk has a multitude of advantages for parents, infants, families, and even the economy and the environment. It is a natural way of ensuring that newborns receive the correct and adequate nutrition they need during a crucial period of growth and development.

While breastfeeding is the always recommended, certain situations may require the use of alternatives. Regardless, it is always best to ensure that a child receives proper nutrition that is available and allowable, whatever their circumstances may be.

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About the Author:
Dr. Sarah Livelo is a licensed physician with specialty training in Pediatrics. When she isn't seeing patients, she delves into healthcare and medical writing. She is also interested in advancements on nutrition and fitness. She graduated with a medical degree from the De La Salle Health Sciences Institute in Cavite, Philippines and had further medical training in Makati Medical Center for three years.


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  • Živković1, J. et al. (2015). Antioxidants and Antioxidant Capacity of Human Milk. Scientific Journal of the Faculty of Medicine in Niš 2015;32(2):115-125
  • Lactation (breastfeeding). World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research. Taken from:
  • Breast milk composition: What’s in your breast milk?. Medela AG. Taken from:

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