Having a baby can be an overwhelming experience full of emotions, challenges and decisions. One of the most important decisions a new mom must make is whether or not to breastfeed, a choice that will have life-long effects for a mom and her baby.

Nicole Pope, MD, pediatric medical director of the Total Care Birth Center at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital, led a panel discussion at the 3rd annual Baby Conference on Sunday, August 6, and says that breastmilk is made especially for babies and has several advantages.

“Our goal as a Baby-Friendly hospital is to have our new mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies, then breastfeed with solid foods until at least 1 to 2 years old,” Pope says.

Our goal as a Baby-Friendly hospital is to have our new mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies, then breastfeed with solid foods until at least 1 to 2 years old.Dr. Nicole Pope

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends breastfeeding for at least six months because of its association with reducing the risk for SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), as well as its other protective effects:

 Healthy nutrients

  • Compared with formula, the nutrients in breastmilk are better absorbed and used by a baby. These include sugar (carbohydrate) and protein.
  • Breastmilk has the nutrients that are best for a baby’s brain growth and nervous system development.
  • A breastfed baby's eyes also work better. This is largely due to certain types of fat in breastmilk.

Preventing infections

  • Breastmilk has many disease-fighting factors. They help prevent mild to severe infections and hospitalization.
  • Breastfed babies have far fewer digestive, lung and ear infections.
  • Babies born prematurely who are breastfed are also less likely to develop a serious infection of the intestines.
  • If your baby develops certain infections when breastfeeding, the infection is likely to be less severe.

Preventing other conditions

Breastfeeding helps protects babies from many serious health problems. And it keeps on offering protection as they get older. Breastfed babies have:

  • A lower risk for SIDS than babies who are not breastfed.
  • A lower risk of developing asthma and skin problems related to allergies. Formula-fed babies are more likely to have milk protein allergies.
  • Less diarrhea and a lowered chance of developing some digestive conditions. Formula can actually alter healthy bacteria in a baby's intestines. The bacteria help with digestion and fighting disease.
  • A lower risk of developing leukemia.
  • Fewer long-term health problems as they grow up. These include diabetes and obesity.

Women who breastfeed also receive many health benefits. Pope, who practices at several of the LLU pediatric clinics, says that breastfeeding isn’t only beneficial for the baby, but for mom’s health too. Breastfeeding enhances maternal-infant bonding by releasing oxytocin and prolactin.

Prolactin helps you relax and focus on your baby while oxytocin promotes a strong feeling of love and attachment between mom and baby,” Pope says.

Breastfeeding can also burn up to an extra 500 calories per day, and mothers who breastfeed are also less likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer and diabetes later in life.

New and expectant moms can obtain more resources at the breastfeeding support group or the Mother’s Breastfeeding Circle at the Birth & Beyond Center at Loma Linda University Children’s Health.