Breast milk is full of everything a baby needs to grow and develop in a healthy way and gives children the very best start in life.

If you’re considering using an infant formula instead of breast milk, it’s really important to speak to a health care professional first. Remember, even partial bottle-feeding can affect a mother’s ability to breastfeed by reducing your supply of breast milk – and it can be a very difficult decision to reverse. It’s also important breastfeeding mothers have a healthy balanced diet to support breastfeeding. Finally, keep in mind that formula is an added cost to your family’s budget.

If you’ve decided to use infant formula in consultation with your healthcare professional, always follow directions carefully – using it properly is important for your baby’s health and safety.

The benefits of breastfeeding

Breast milk is your body’s way of producing the perfect food for your new baby. It’s full of all the right nutrients – and is everything a growing infant needs for optimal development and health. It has health benefits for mums too, and helps create a strong bond between mums and their babies.

The best start for your baby

Up until 6 months of age breast milk is the only food a baby needs. Along with its full range of nutrients, it also comes with a wide range of other health benefits – some of which may be surprising.

Enhanced immunity

Breast milk is full of immune factors that help protect your baby early in life, as their immune system develops. In the first few days after giving birth new mothers produce a special kind of milk called colostrum, which is particularly rich in the protective factors babies need for immune defence. This makes it a really important time to be breastfeeding. Your baby’s immune system will continue to develop and mature over the next year.

Defence against childhood infections

Breastfed babies are less likely to develop common infections like diarrhoea and gastro-enteritis (partly because they’re at a lower risk of consuming harmful micro-organisms), respiratory, ear or urinary tract infections – which is considered to be linked to the enhanced immunity provided by breast milk.

Promotes visual and cognitive development

Studies suggest that compared to bottle feeding, breastfeeding can have long-term benefits for a child’s cognitive development and visual acuity. These benefits seem to be more pronounced with increased breastfeeding durations.

A closer bond

As you regularly experience closeness and skin-to-skin contact with your baby through breastfeeding, you can both start to form a strong bond with each other.

Lower likelihood of obesity 

There is an association between breastfed infants and healthy weight in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood – with breastfed children less likely to become obese. And this protective effect seems to increase when children are breastfed for longer, peaking at 9 months.

Could lower the risk of allergies

Breastfeeding is also thought to reduce the likelihood of children developing allergies like allergic rhinitis, wheezing, asthma, dermatitis or food allergies – more evidence is needed to confirm this though.

Lower risk of coeliac and bowel disease

Babies who are breastfed at the same time when gluten (a protein naturally found in many grains) starts to be introduced to their eating plans have a lower risk of developing coeliac disease (an intolerance to gluten). Breast milk may have a protective effect against early-onset inflammatory bowel disease.

Lower risk of chronic diseases

Some studies suggest that breastfeeding is linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure later in life.

Lower risk of infant mortality and hospitalisation

Babies who are breastfed, especially those born underweight, have a lower risk of death during their first year of life, including death from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and are also less likely to be hospitalised.

What to do if you need help

For some mums, breastfeeding can be challenging, and there are a number of reasons for that. If you’re having trouble, or you’re just not sure how to do it properly, that’s ok. You can get help from your midwife, lactation consultant, doctor or plunket nurse – or you could reach out to other mums who have breastfed and experienced similar challenges.

There’s also some useful information on the Ministry of Health’s website.