Benefits of Breastfeeding: A Nutritional View

by Jeannie Versagli, RDN, CN

Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months, yet in 2015 only 57 % of infants were breastfed till 6 months of age.

Healthful Benefits for the Mother and Baby

Breastfeeding offers numerous health and nutritional benefits. 

Breast milk has three different and distinct stages: colostrum, transitional milk, and mature milk.


Colostrum is the first stage of breast milk. The body starts making it during pregnancy and continues to do so for several days after the birth of the baby. It is either yellowish or creamy in color and thicker in consistency than the milk that is produced later. Colostrum is high in protein, fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, and immunoglobulins. Immunoglobulins are antibodies that pass from the mother to the baby and provide passive immunity for the baby. Passive immunity protects the baby from a wide variety of bacterial and viral illnesses. Two to four days after birth, colostrum will be replaced by transitional milk.

Transitional milk

Transitional milk occurs after colostrum and lasts for approximately two weeks. The content of transitional milk includes high levels of fat, lactose, and water-soluble vitamins.  It contains more calories than colostrum.

Mature milk

Mature milk is the final milk that is produced. 90% of it is water, which is necessary to keep the infant hydrated. The other 10% is comprised of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats which are necessary for both growth and energy.

There are two types of mature milk:

Fore-milk: This type of milk is found during the beginning of the feeding and contains water, vitamins, and protein.

Hind-milk: This type of milk occurs after the initial release of milk. It contains higher levels of fat and is necessary for weight gain.

Both fore-milk and hind-milk are necessary when breastfeeding to ensure the baby is receiving adequate nutrition to grow and develop properly.

Breast milk also contains oligosaccharides which are prebiotics that supports healthy microbiota colonization in the gut and intestinal mucosa. It has been suggested that infants that are breastfed, have a higher rate of diverse microbiome than formula-fed infants. Infant formula companies are now looking into developing formulas with oligosaccharides to aid in improving the formula to promote a healthier gut.

Benefits for infants and babies

Infants and babies that consume breast milk have a lower rate of gastrointestinal infections, celiac disease, irritable bowel disease, diabetes one and two, eczema, asthma, ear infections, and respiratory infections. Because breast milk is easier to digest, there are fewer incidences of GI distress as well.   Babies taking breast milk develop more leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite and influences fat storage. This increase results in fewer incidents of becoming overweight or obese later in life. Infants that are breastfed on demand have been found to have better control of their appetite and eating when introduced to solid foods.

Newer studies are showing evidence that breastfed children have a slightly higher IQ and breastfeeding is known to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Health Benefits for the Mother

There are numerous health benefits for women who breastfeed, such as the reduction in the risk of developing postpartum depression.  Breastfeeding increases the amounts of oxytocin in the blood, which promotes relaxation, improves mood, and promotes the shrinkage of the uterus which in turns promotes weight loss.  Women who breastfeed their babies for 12 months have a reduced risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers by 28%. Further, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases are rarely seen in women who have breastfed.

While breastfeeding, the mother’s nutrition needs to increase up to 650 calories a day. It is estimated that a woman should consume at least 1,800 calories a day. These calories should come from the following foods daily:

  • Colorful vegetables and fruits – always fill half of your plate with these foods at lunch and dinner. 
  • Include three eight-ounce servings form of dairy
  • Use healthy oils, such as avocado and olive oil.
  • A six-ounce portion of lean proteins coming from eggs, fish (salmon, tuna or mackerel, legumes, or poultry.
  • Whole grains, such as quinoa, wild rice, and brown rice.

Be sure to consume adequate fluids throughout the day for hydration and milk production, with water being the best hydration fluid.

It is best to incorporate snacks throughout the day to consume the needed calories to produce the necessary amount of breast milk for the baby and to keep mom healthy.

Vitamin D

It is important to ensure the mother is consuming adequate amounts of this vitamin.  It is recommended to consume 400 IU of Vitamin D daily.  Foods that provide sources of vitamin D are salmon, fortified milk, yogurt, and/or fortified cereals.  Keep in mind it is recommended that breastfed infants be supplemented with 400 IU of vitamin D daily. (Discuss this with your pediatrician.)


Consuming 3, 8-ounce servings of dairy daily, assures that mother and baby are receiving adequate calcium to develop strong and healthy bones and minimize calcium loss for the mother.  An estimated 3 to 5% of bones loss can occur while a mother is breastfeeding, so it is important that dairy products remain a part of the mother’s daily diet.  If the mother is not able to consume dairy, she should look to incorporate fortified juices, tofu, dark green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and broccoli.  Fortified cereals also are an option to receive additional calcium in the diet.

The evidence for breastfeeding improving mother’s and baby’s health is very compelling. Knowing the importance of nutrition, breastfeeding should be encouraged for all infants/babies and mothers to build a solid foundation for good health.


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