Bringing the Science of Breastfeeding to the Table

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Guest Author, Veronica Searles Quick

The Museum’s Health Sciences Department is partnering with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to publish a monthly series on the Museum blog called “Know Health”. The articles focus on current health topics selected by CU’s medical and graduate students in order to provide both English and Spanish speaking communities with current, accurate information. The posts in the “Know Health” series are edited versions of articles that first appeared in Contrapoder magazine. Thank you to the students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus for bringing these stories to life.

(aka Dr. Nicole Garneau, chair and curator, Health Sciences Department)


Guest Author, Veronica Searles Quick is a student in the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

(en Español)

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August is the number one month of the year for births, making August both a month of joy and a time for making decisions, particularly for new moms.

One of the biggest decisions she will make is whether to breastfeed, use formula, or use a combination of both. While medical experts recommend breastfeeding exclusively for at least the first six months of life, new moms are rarely told why this is so important. As a result, many may be confused by the options and unable to feel confident in making the right decision for their family.

Scientific studies for many years have confirmed and reconfirmed what many moms know by intuition, that breastfeeding is good for both baby and mom. It improves baby’s immune and gut function, helps bond mom and baby, and lowers a mother’s risk for multiple diseases.

Benefit 1: Improved Immune System
Breastfeeding helps kickstart the baby’s immune system and the developing gut. The benefit of the immune system starts with an antibody that all of us have, but newborns are born without, called Immunoglobulin A. This molecule helps defend the body against infections. When a newborn drinks breast milk, it acquires the immunoglobulin from his mom, protecting him against any bacteria and viruses in which his mom is already immune. This process is called “passive immunity,” and it protects the baby until its own immune system is fully developed.

Tied to immunity is the baby’s microbiome, the community of healthy bacteria that helps the baby’s body work. Breastfed babies are less likely to have gut problems, including dangerous conditions like enterocolitis, an inflammatory condition that can cause permanent damage to an infant’s intestines. Researchers in Pittsburgh recently discovered a compound in breast milk that may explain this protective effect: sodium nitrate. After this enters the baby’s gut it gets converted to nitric oxide, which protects the intestine and promotes healthy blood flow, possibly helping foster a healthy gut microbiome in the process.

For moms that are unable to breastfeed, or don’t produce enough milk, these data can feel suffocating. While it’s true that formula does not contain antibodies, there is hope. Scientists are looking at how adding specific nutritional components and prebiotics can help newborns make more immunoglobulin and faster, helping to protect them sooner than was originally possible with traditional formulas.

Benefit 2: Mom/Baby Bonding
Breastfeeding also helps strengthen the bond between mother and child during the critical first few months of life. One recent study found that mothers who fed their babies breast milk exclusively were more attentive and nurturing than mothers who fed their babies formula. While it’s unclear the science behind this particular result, a strong hypothesis supporting bonding for the mother is that breastfeeding releases the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “bonding hormone” as it induces generosity, intimacy and trust. What about women that can’t breastfeed and all the dads out there in the world bonding with their children? A study in 2010 found that high oxytocin levels in fathers were triggered by active play with their child, while levels of the hormone in moms could be obtained by cuddling.

Benefit 3: Mom’s Long-term Health
Breastfeeding is that it’s good for mom’s long--term health. A new study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology found that women who breastfeed have lower rates of hypertension, heart disease and breast cancer than those who don’t. Because this result is due to the biological process of breastfeeding itself, there is no equivalent yet in the formula world. However, non-breastfeeding moms, or women that do not have children, can engage in many other healthy techniques to obtain these benefits, including meditation and yoga, healthy eating and regular exercise to name only a few.

Benefit 4: Baby’s Brain Development
Finally, breastfeeding is known to positively affect the child’s developing brain. Researchers at Brown University have discovered that infants fed only breast milk have more advanced brain development in regions affecting intelligence, language, motor and emotional function than those fed formula. This difference is due to changes in brain white matter, which affects how well cells in the brain and body communicate.

The difference was surprising: breastfed kids had up to 30 percent more white matter growth at two years of age than non-breastfed kids. This may be due to the chemical DHA, which is in breast milk and affects brain development. Supporting this idea, babies fed formula supplemented with DHA have better cognitive development than babies fed standard formula.

The verdict? When it comes to providing the most benefits to mother and baby, breastfeeding beats formula in every category. However, there is hope for non-breastfeeding moms out there. In addition to the things listed above pertaining to formula families, there are now breast milk banks that can help families that would like to breastfeed. Visit to learn more, and check out this opinion piece on the big world of milk banks from mom and professor of public policy, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett:

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