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Breastfeeding: Relative Benefits for the Child

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Breastfeeding: Relative Benefits for the Child  

I am pregnant and going to have my first child. What advantages and disadvantages would my baby get from being breastfed?

Breastfeeding has many physical, immunological, neurological, and psychological benefits for the child:(references 1-3)

• Breast milk of women contains required nutrients and other molecules that promote normal growth, foster physical development, improve cognitive development, and maintain overall health of babies.

• Breast milk of women contains antibodies and other molecules made by the woman’s immune system that can help protect babies (who have immature immune systems) and children against a variety of infections, including bacterial infection of the blood, bacterial meningitis, ear infections, bacterial respiratory infections (e.g., bacterial pneumonia), viral respiratory infections (e.g., colds), diarrhea caused by intestinal infections, colitis, and urinary tract infections.

• If nursing exposes the mother to the infant’s germs to which the mother has not been previously exposed, the mother’s immune system will produce antibodies that are secreted in the breast milk and can help the baby fight infection.

• Breastfed infants in the United States (U.S.) show a 21% lower rate of infant mortality than do U.S. infants who are not breastfed.

• Breastfeeding may help protect children against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in the first year of life and juvenile (insulin-dependent; type 1) diabetes.

• Throughout their lives, people who were breastfed as infants tend to have lower risks of developing asthma, non-insulin-dependent (type 2) diabetes, high cholesterol levels, an overweight condition and obesity, Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and leukemia.

• Breastfeeding during medical procedures that otherwise would be painful for the infant reduces the infant's pain.

• Nursing fortifies an emotional bond between child and mother and fosters a sense of security in the child.

Disadvantages of breastfeeding for the child are: (reference 3)

• Possibility of transmission of tuberculosis bacteria from the breast milk of an untreated mother who has an active infection to the child.

• Possibility of transmission of HIV (the causative agent of AIDS) from the breast milk of an infected mother to the child. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that U.S. women who are HIV-positive or have AIDS should not breastfeed their children. Regardless of where women live, women who are HIV-positive or have AIDS and are considering breastfeeding should talk to their doctors and other healthcare providers in advance about the levels of HIV in their body fluids, seek the advice of their doctors and other healthcare providers, and become fully informed about these important concerns before making any decisions about breastfeeding their children.

• Possibility of transmission of human T-cell lymphotrophic virus type I (HTLV-I) or type II (HTLV-II) from the breast milk of an infected mother to the child.

• Possibility of transmission of herpes (herpes simplex virus; HSV) from a herpes lesion (area of herpes infection) on the breast of an infected mother to the child. If the other breast does not have a herpes lesion, breastfeeding from the unaffected breast can be considered. Women who have a herpes lesion on a breast and are considering nursing their infant should seek the advice of their doctors and their other healthcare providers.

• Potential side effects of certain powerful medications (e.g., radioactive isotope medications used to diagnose or treat cancer and some other diseases, chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer, some anti-metabolite drugs used to treat some diseases, and some anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV) that may be able to enter the breast milk and cause harm to the child. Nursing by a woman taking most prescription drugs and most over-the-counter medications, however, does not cause harm to a breastfed child. Nevertheless, women who are taking prescription medications and wish to breastfeed their infant should consult with their doctor about the types of prescription medications they are receiving, the length of time before the medications disappear from the breast milk, and the safety of nursing.

• Harm to the breastfed child from drugs of abuse (also called, "street drugs") taken by the mother.

• Potential side effects to breastfed children from radioactivity in the breast milk of mothers accidentally exposed to radioactive materials. After the doctors and healthcare providers of these women have determined that the radioactivity has disappeared from the breast milk, these women can consider breastfeeding.

• Infants with the genetic disease of metabolism, galactosemia (a deficiency in the enzyme, galactose 1-phosphate uridyltransferase), should not be breastfed and should not receive human milk. If your infant is diagnosed with galactosemia, ask your doctor and other healthcare providers about the best forms of nutrition for your baby.

Overall, potential benefits to a child breastfed by a healthy mother tend to outweigh potential disadvantages to the child. The decision whether to breastfeed is very personal. When considering whether breastfeeding is best for you and your baby:

• See our Q&A on relative benefits to the mother

• See the Policy Statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics on "Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk," in Pediatrics, 2005: 115(2):496-505. which can be accessed at

• See the website of the La Leche League International, www.lalecheleague.org, which provides helpful information about breastfeeding and support.

• Talk to your doctor about your medical history, the needs of your child, and the benefits of nursing your baby.


1. What are the benefits of breastfeeding my baby? Accessed at www.lalecheleague.org.
2. Can breastfeeding prevent diseases? Accessed at www.lalecheleague.org.
3. American Academy of Pediatrics, Section on Breastfeeding. Policy statement: Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics 2005; 115(2):496-505.

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