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It is a decision that mothers have faced since the dawn of time: should I breast feed my baby? In centuries past, it may have been instinct that led mothers to nurse their newborn infants – it just felt right. Today, however, we have the advantage of years of scientific research into the benefits or otherwise of breast milk as opposed to cow’s milk or specialized formula milk. So, what does the evidence show? Which is best? Breast or beast?

Fortunately for parents the scientific community is now quite clearly on the side of mother’s milk, despite the advertising of recent decades which has favored the infant formulas of modern technology. The official position of the United Nations Children’s fund (UNICEF) policy statement on the issue is as follows: “ Breast-milk alone is the best possible food and drink for babies in the first six months of life.” This position has been affirmed by the World Health Assembly, who have stated that “ in the first four to six months of life, no food or liquid other than breast milk, not even water, is required to meet the normal infant’s nutritional requirements.” What then is it about breast milk that elicits such glowing recommendations?

Breast milk contains all the proteins, growth stimulants, fats, carbohydrates, enzymes, vitamins, and trace elements that are vital to an infant’s healthy growth during the first few months of life. It contains enough water to quench a baby’s thirst, even in hot, dry climates.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) a million infant deaths each year could be prevented if all mothers fed their babies nothing but breast milk during the first four to six months of life. One reason for this is that powdered milk is often – especially in developing nations – over-diluted using unclean water and served in unsterilized bottles. In contrast to formula milk, mother’s milk also contains anti-bodies that protect the infant from disease. Breast fed babies, therefore, seem less prone to dental disease, cancer, diabetes and allergies. It is also believed that the vigorous sucking action required in breast feeding promotes in babies the proper development of facial bones and muscles.

Breast feeding can also have real benefits for the mother. The suckling action stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, which causes contraction of the uterus – thus lessening any post delivery bleeding. Breast feeding also appears to lower the risk of ovarian and breast cancer.

The benefits of breast feeding, then are many and varied. One more benefit, that merits mention, is that it is also free. And it’s always available. It makes sense, then, to utilize the natural alternative and give your child the breast feeding advantage.