Mother's Milk Is Healthiest for Baby and Planet

CC BY 2.0. daily cloudt

Breastmilk is a rich, nourishing, health-promoting, zero waste miracle liquid. We love it.

To breastfeed or not to breastfeed? This can be a contentious question for many. While infant formula is a phenomenal invention for which we should all be very grateful, as it has enabled countless infants to survive who might not have otherwise, and provided a reasonably nutritious option to mothers who cannot or choose not to breastfeed their babies, it is not -- and never will be -- quite as amazing as breastmilk, which is the milk made specifically for feeding human infants.

Breastmilk has countless benefits for both a mother and baby, as well as for the planet. Let's start by looking at the milk itself, a rich and nutrient-packed liquid with mind-boggling shape-shifting abilities. Every woman's breastmilk differs according to the needs of her child. Take a single feed, for example. The liquid that the baby starts drinking, the foremilk, is not the same as the liquid it finishes with, called the hindmilk. The former is meant to quench thirst, while the latter is fattier, perfect for promoting sleep.

Breastmilk production can respond to whatever illnesses might be passing through a household, providing the baby with the antibodies and white blood cells needed to fend off infection. The mother's body does this by responding to pathogens in her own body and making a substance called secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA) that's specific to those pathogens, creating protection for her baby based on whatever the mother is exposed to (via BabyCenter).

Breastmilk is linked to lower obesity and overweight later in life and fewer allergies, ear infections, respiratory illnesses, cancer diagnoses, and meningitis in infancy. The IgA substance, found in greatest concentrations in colostrum, which is the earliest form of milk produced in the days following birth, also serves to coat the inside of baby's intestines, throat, and nose to block the entrance of germs. If more babies were breastfed, it would save lives. According to the New York Times,

"A 2016 study in The Lancet found that universal breast-feeding would prevent 800,000 child deaths a year across the globe and yield $300 billion in savings from reduced health care costs and improved economic outcomes for those reared on breast milk."

Those are just some of the benefits to babies. Breastfeeding also helps women. Pediatrician Harvey Karp wrote for the NY Daily News in 2012,

"[Breastmilk] boosts a mother's health by reducing postpartum bleeding; promoting weight loss (the calories a mom gives her baby in milk each day is equivalent to her running about four miles); and by reducing the risk of many serious health issues later in life (including osteoporosis, arthritis, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes)."

Formula advocates would point out that breastfeeding can feel like a tremendous burden on a new mother, forcing her to shoulder full responsibility for feeding a newborn every 2 to 3 hours, rather than sharing the job with her partner, and there is some truth to this, especially for nighttime feedings. But I'd argue, from my own experience with nursing three children, that breastfeeding offers built-in rest time for tired mothers. Particularly after my first kid, feeding was an excuse to leave the family chaos, go into a quiet room, put up my feet, and sit in silence for up to 45 minutes, several times a day. It forced me to stop moving and take a much-needed break.

Mentally, there is great liberation in not having to worry about impeccable hygiene, correct ratios, proper temperatures, and the possibility of overfeeding that goes along with formula. With breastfeeding there is no guesswork; my midwives always told me you cannot overfeed a breastfed baby, it's permanently sanitary, and the temperature is always perfect.

Then there are the environmental benefits of breastfeeding. If you're serious about reducing waste output, then breast is definitely best, as zero-waste as you can get. No formula containers to toss in the recycling, no plastic bottles and silicone nipples to dispose of, no plastic liners, nothing but a naked nipple ready to go. (Oh, and it's free. We can't forget this point on a website that loves frugality! A 2013 estimate from The Simple Dollar pegged formula-feeding at $1,733 in the first year of a baby's life, which is a hefty chunk of cash.)

This is not to say that there is never a time or place for formula, nor do we want parents to feel guilty for making that choice, whatever their reasons may be. But breastfeeding should always be the goal, the first choice if possible, because of its incredible intrinsic qualities. A factory-produced substance simply cannot compare to breastmilk, which, when studied closely, seems nothing short of miraculous.