Rates of childhood leukemia have been rising since the 1970s and no one’s entirely sure why. However, scientists at the University of Haifa and the Israel Center For Disease Control just published a study, which found that children who are breastfed had a lower risk of developing the disease.
Childhood leukemia accounts for almost one-third of the cancers diagnosed in juveniles. So, any way of cutting the chances of getting the disease is very welcome. According to the authors of the study, “14 percent to 19 percent of all childhood leukemia cases may be prevented by breastfeeding for six months or more.”
Annually, almost 5,000 kids end up being diagnosed with leukemia in the United States alone. If the researchers are correct, then breastfeeding could help prevent between 700 and 950 cases of leukemia in children every year.
The health benefits of breastfeeding
The health benefits of breastfeeding have been recognized since antiquity. The practice so important in most cultures that mother’s milk was considered a religious obligation in many societies and “wet nurses” were employed whenever a woman could not breastfeed her own children.
There is abundant evidence that infants were fed milk from animal sources in ancient times too. But lack of sterilizing methods usually meant that delivery vessels posed health risks for newborns.
In 1865, chemists began to develop the first liquid and powdered infant formulas. But questionable sanitary practices often contributed to batches that were contaminated, which undoubtedly resulted in numerous unexplained infant deaths.
By the 1930s and 1940s, however, the “safety” of infant formulas had improved to the point where the American Medical Association lent its seal of approval to many of the brands. From that point on, aggressive marketing campaigns ultimately led to a steady decline in breastfeeding globally.
Breast milk is far healthier than infant formula
Scientific research, however, clearly shows that mother’s milk is nutritionally far better for newborns than infant formula. For example, the authors of an important meta-study wrote, “formula is not responsive to a growing infant’s nutritional needs, which makes the digestive process more difficult.” This has led organizations like the American Pediatrics Association to distance itself from the formula movement in favor of groups that advocate breastfeeding.
Increasingly, the evidence is pointing in one direction. Put simply, breast milk has properties which help prevent disease and promote health. On the other hand, infant formulas contain sugars, preservatives and other artificial ingredients, which raise a child’s risk for getting obesity, asthma or immune disorders. Here are five conditions that breast milk can help prevent.
1. Breastfed children have better vision
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nutrients in mother’s milk help cut the risk of nearsightedness. Richard Stone, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, speculates that DHA, a natural fatty acid in breast milk, may play a crucial role in the development of receptors in the retina. Without DHA, the eyes may not grow as well as they should.
2. Mother’s milk appears to protect against diabetes
Studies show that being breastfed helps reduce the chances of getting type 1 diabetes by 30 percent (and type 2 diabetes by 40 percent). Researchers speculate that being breastfed helps reduce exposure to β-lactoglobulin in cow’s milk. There is some evidence β-lactoglobulin triggers an autoimmune-response that impairs the pancreas (an organ that is critical to regulating blood glucose levels).
3. Breastfeeding lowers the risk of obesity
Breast milk contains virtually all the nutrition a child needs for the first six months of their lives. In contrast, recommendations published in JAMA Pediatrics says that feeding an infant solid meals and jarred baby food too early is linked to food allergies and unhealthy eating habits. A number of studies suggest that obesity rates could be reduced by 15 percent to 20 percent by breastfeeding.
4. Breast milk greatly reduces the risk of infectious diseases
Babies who are breastfed have a greatly reduced risk of getting either respiratory or gastrointestinal infection. This is because mother’s milk contains antigens that help block the transmission of the norovirus (and other common pathogens). Mother’s milk also contains prebiotics, which encourages the growth of healthy bacteria in the GI tract, which offers children another level of protection against infections.
5. Breastfeeding cuts the risk of allergies and asthma
There’s an abundance of evidence indicating that mother’s milk contains antibodies (from the mom’s own immune response) that helps stimulate the newborn’s immunity. Numerous studies have shown that breastfeeding is correlated with improved immunity and a healthier respiratory system later in life.
Dr. Liesbeth Duijts, of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, sums up the scientific evidence between breastfeeding and respiratory health when she says, “We suggest that longer and exclusive breastfeeding is associated with a reduced risk of asthma-related symptoms compared to children who do not receive any breastfeeding.”
Mother Nature knows best
— Scott O’Reilly