In a nationwide study of nearly 10 million infants born in the U.S. between 2016 and 2018, scientists found that babies who were breastfed had a 33% lower risk of death during their first year, compared to infants who were not breastfed. This research corroborates previous smaller-scale studies which suggested a 19% to 26% reduction.
Julie L. Ware, who led the investigation from Cincinnati Children’s Center for Breastfeeding Medicine, says that these findings show a clear link between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of post-perinatal infant mortality across the U.S.
Alongside colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics, the researchers linked birth and infant death records from 2016 to 2018. The analysis took into account various factors including maternal age, education, ethnicity, race, and geographical location, enabling a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between breastfeeding initiation and infant mortality.
The scientists noted that the protective effect of breastfeeding was seen nationwide, but variations were evident across regions. The impact ranged from a 44% reduction in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, regions with the highest breastfeeding initiation rates, to a 21% reduction in the Southeast, where breastfeeding initiation rates are lower.
Why breastfeeding is good
You may already know that organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend breastfeeding as the optimal source of infant nutrition. Their guidelines advocate for exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of an infant's life, followed by the introduction of complementary foods while continuing to breastfeed for at least the first two years.
Research shows that breast milk is uniquely tailored to meet your baby's nutritional needs, containing essential nutrients, antibodies, and hormones that support their growth and immune system development.
But the benefits of breastfeeding extend beyond its nutritional content. Studies have shown breastfeeding also reduces infant mortality and offers protection against sudden infant death syndrome and necrotizing enterocolitis, particularly in preterm infants.
Despite these facts, U.S. breastfeeding rates are lagging, failing to meet the recommended goals. For example, less than a quarter of U.S. infants meet the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life. Certain racial, ethnic populations and geographical regions are more affected by this discrepancy.
Although infant formula is designed to mimic human milk to provide all the nutrients a baby needs, it isn't nearly as good as breast milk. Compared with formula, the nutrients in breast milk are better absorbed and used by your baby. These include sugar (carbohydrates) and protein.
"Though breastfeeding is widely recommended, nevertheless, some may still consider it to be of minor importance. We hope that our findings will change the narrative. Human milk is replete with protective molecules, and breastfeeding offers significant protection," said co-author Ardythe Morrow from the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine.
The findings appeared in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.