woman breastfeeding her baby at home

6 Amazing Benefits of Breastfeeding and Breast Milk

By Marisa Iallonardo
Reviewed by Terri Major-Kincade, M.D.
February 27, 2024

Many experts and parents agree: There are a variety of benefits of breastfeeding, chestfeeding, and/or feeding a baby expressed breast milk.

That’s because breast milk is amazing. Breast milk is made exactly for your baby and adapts to their needs and age. “It has the right amount of protein, carbs, and fat for that particular age and development stage,” says Nikki Hunter Greenaway, a board-certified family nurse practitioner, lactation consultant, and owner of Bloom Maternal Health in Houston.

The benefits of breast milk extend beyond simply helping your little one grow and gain weight. In fact, breastfeeding can have benefits for you, too.

Here are some of the amazing things breast milk can do.

1. Boosts a Baby’s Immune System

If you’ve heard that breast milk can boost your baby’s immunity, you’ve heard right. Colostrum, the type of breast milk produced in the first few days of the baby’s life, is especially helpful. “It’s so rich in immune-protective factors,” says Reina A. Patel, D.O., a board-certified pediatrician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

These include immune-supporting cytokines (inflammation-related proteins) and antibodies, says Erica Kates, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician with Holyoke Pediatric Associates in Holyoke, Massachusetts. “So, for example, if a [nursing] mother gets a cold or COVID, or RSV, or other infections, the mother’s immune system starts making antibodies to these [illnesses] immediately,” Kates says. “Those antibodies are passed on in the breast milk to the baby to help protect the baby from getting these same infections.”

Getting antibodies in breast milk can be important as newborns’ immature immune systems haven’t built up their own protection against illnesses.

“So, right from the beginning, even if you give a little bit of colostrum to the baby, you’re offering such incredible immunity for that child,” Patel says.

2. Helps Protect a Baby Against Infections

Breast milk can also cut your child’s risk of other common infections like ear infections (otitis media). In one study of over 2,000 babies, for instance, those who were largely breastfed for six months had lower rates of ear infections through age 3.

Breastfed babies may be at lower risk for lower respiratory tract infections and infant diarrhea, too, says Patel.

3. Lowers Chronic Illness Risk for the Baby

Breast milk can also help decrease your baby’s risk of having some long-term illnesses later in life, Patel says. These include Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, obesity, Type 1 diabetes, and Type 2 diabetes.

4. Reduces Your Risk of Cancer and Chronic Illness

Breastfeeding can also lower the nursing parent’s risk of certain conditions, including breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancer, Patel says. Although experts don’t have the full picture yet, the thought is that breast milk produces hamlet cells, which can kill cancer cells, Greenaway says.

Breastfeeding may also cut your chances of developing Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure in the future.

5. Supports Your Mental Health

Parenthood is a stressful time. For some, breastfeeding can offer a mental health boost, in part because of the hormone oxytocin, Greenaway says. Oxytocin is released during breastfeeding, and it promotes feelings of calm and bonding.

“Some moms have said that [breastfeeding] really helped them in creating a special bond with their baby and improving their mental health around their pregnancy, especially if they’ve endured any trauma,” she says.

If breastfeeding feels stressful, though, you’re definitely not alone. Your provider or pediatrician can offer additional support or resources if you need them.

6. May Also Help Relieve Skin Irritations

Not very much research backs up the use of breast milk for purposes besides feeding. As Kates notes, “Most of the information about using breast milk for things other than feeding babies is really anecdotal.”

But some people have also used drops of breast milk to soothe mild skin issues. Parents have applied breast milk to help heal cradle cap, small cuts and scrapes, and even their own cracked nipples. In one study, topical breast milk worked as well as hydrocortisone cream for soothing a baby’s eczema.

It’s likely the “high fat content in breastmilk that is probably really helpful and soothing,” says Kates. Milk is high in lipids, which can be great for the skin barrier.

Keep in mind that this may only be worth trying on minor issues. If you have a lot of redness; swelling; big, open wounds; or obvious signs of infection, get medical help instead. As Greenaway cautions, “Breast milk is not the cure-all for some major bacterial and fungal infections.”

What About Breast Milk for Pink Eye?

People have used breast milk for other things, including eye-related issues like pink eye. But it’s important to look closely at the breastfeeding facts

Some people believe that since this substance has infection-fighting properties, then putting it in an infected area could speed up healing. But Kates cautions that using breast milk topically has not been proven to heal eye infections.

“The vast majority of pink eye is viral. And viral pink eye does tend to go away by itself, no matter what you do,” Kates says.

Also, the American Academy of Ophthalmology advises against this practice, saying that breast milk may be “more harmful than helpful” because it can introduce bacteria to the eye.

If you’re considering using breast milk for anything other than feeding, ask your baby’s pediatrician for their approval before trying it.

The bottom line is that there are many benefits of breastfeeding or chestfeeding. If you pump or express your breast milk and feed it to your baby, your baby receives the benefits, too.

Breast milk has superpowers that can help keep you and your baby healthy in big ways. Although some uses are fully backed with research, others may need a bit more exploration or a conversation with your doctor about safety and whether they work. When in doubt, talk to your healthcare team.

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