Breast milk is nature’s perfect food for babies.
Think about it: mother nature has had more than 2.5 million years to figure this one out. Breast milk contains the perfect mix of fat, protein and carbohydrate for the babies developing physiology. It contains protective substances that give her immunity to diseases.
In the early stages of a baby’s life, breast milk meets all of her nutrient needs. No other foods or fluids – including water – are necessary. (Breast milk itself is 88% water, which more than satisfies an infant’s thirst).
A report called Infant and Young Child Feeding issues by the World Health Organization summarized research indicating that infants should be breasted exclusively for the first 6 months of their lives. Babies exclusively breastfed for 6 months have 8.6 times lower risk of diarrheal illness. A study from India found that deaths from diarrhea and pneumonia could be decreased by one-third if infants were exclusively (rather than partially) breastfed for the first 4 months. Sadly, only 35% of infants are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life.
Breastfeeding also confers intermediate- and long-term benefits on both the child and the mother, including helping to protect children against a variety of acute and chronic disorders.
Infants not breastfed are between 6 and 10 times more likely not to survive the first months of life. Formula-fed infants also have increased risk of long-term diseases with an immunological basis, such as asthma, type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and childhood leukemia.
Other studies suggest that obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease are more common later in life in kids not breastfed, and that kids that are formula-fed on average have cognitive scores 3 points lower than those breastfed.
Breastfeeding should continue (with solid food) for at least two years
In the same WHO report mentioned above, the authors recommended that breastfeeding continue along with the introduction of solid foods (i.e. “complementary feeding”) for at least 23 months (two years). This is the minimum period required to adequately nourish the growing baby. Some parents may wish to continue breastfeeding beyond this point.
At six months of age, the increased energy needs of the infant start to exceed the energy provided by breast milk, so that’s the time to begin to introduce foods. It is not okay to continue to breastfeed exclusively at this point. At the same time, breastfeeding should still continue on-demand throughout the complementary feeding period (up to 2 years of age). Breast milk continues to provide higher quality nutrients than complementary foods, and also protective factors that guard against childhood illness and reduce the risk of chronic diseases later in life.
The WHO recommends that breast milk provide at least 50 percent of calories for a child between 6 and 12 months of age, and one-third of calories between 12 and 24 months of age.