Breastfeeding has been shown to have a positive effect on the physical health of children, as well as their early behaviour and relationship with parents. Even long after breastfeeding has stopped, its influence can be seen in the child’s emotional, intellectual and physical development.
To date, research has provided clear support for the nutritional and health benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding has a major impact on rates of disease and death, particularly in developing countries. It protects against gastrointestinal and respiratory infections and is associated with a reduced incidence of childhood-onset chronic diseases, such as diabetes, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and some childhood malignancies. It also protects against allergies, with immunological protection continuing as long as the child is breastfed.
Breastfeeding can affect the early behaviour of infants and have a positive impact on the parents as well. Breastfeeding can result in closer parent-child relationships. Compared to formula-fed infants, breastfed infants may be more alert, cry less, and be better able to engage in interactions with their parents. Mothers who breastfeed have lower levels of perceived stress and negative mood and higher levels of maternal attachment; they also tend to see their children as more reinforcing compared to mothers who formula feed.
Breastfeeding has been found to affect several aspects of children’s development. Specifically, it has been shown to improve children’s vision, an indication of breastfeeding’s positive effect on the development of the central nervous system. Research indicates that breastfeeding also affects motor development: children who are breastfed show an earlier ability to crawl and perform the “pincer grip,” after adjusting for potential confounding variables.
Breastfeeding plays a significant role in the social and emotional development of children as well. Research shows that children who have been breastfed are more outgoing, socially secure and more advanced on the developmental scales. Being breastfed exclusively for at least four months has been shown to have a positive effect on children’s intellectual development, even when controlled for mothers’ demographic variables.
Some positive effects associated with breastfeeding continue throughout a child’s development, even after the feeding practice has ended. For instance, it has been consistently associated with prevention of childhood/adolescence obesity, a condition that can harm the child’s self-esteem and socio-emotional development.