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Infant benefits of breastfeeding

Richard J Schanler, MD
Section Editor
Steven A Abrams, MD
Deputy Editor
Alison G Hoppin, MD


Human milk is recommended as the exclusive nutrient source for feeding term infants for the first six months of life and should be continued with the addition of solid foods after six months of age [1,2]. Breastfeeding for all infants is strongly supported by both governmental and medical professional organizations because of its acknowledged benefits with respect to nutrition, gastrointestinal function, host defense, and psychological well-being [1,3-6]. In addition to these direct short-term benefits, breastfeeding is associated with long-term benefits to the infant and mother. Systematic reviews of the literature have demonstrated multiple benefits of breastfeeding for both the infant and mother [7,8].

The benefits of breastfeeding for the infant will be reviewed here. The maternal and economic benefits of breastfeeding and breastfeeding during the perinatal period, including the contraindications to breastfeeding, are discussed separately. (See "Maternal and economic benefits of breastfeeding" and "Breastfeeding: Parental education and support".)


Breastfeeding has direct clinical benefits for the infant as well as potential-long term benefits that are realized after the breastfeeding period. The direct benefits of human milk include improvement in gastrointestinal function and host defense, and prevention of acute illnesses (eg, acute otitis media) during the time of breastfeeding [7].

Gastrointestinal function — Several components of human milk stimulate gastrointestinal growth and motility, which enhance the maturity of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Other factors are protective and decrease the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and other infections [9,10].

These stimulatory and protective components include:

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Nov 01, 2017.
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