To Your Health

I want to do everything right for my baby, due in March 2002, so I plan to breast-feed. How long should I give my baby breast milk only? What advantages do breast-fed babies

Q. I want to do everything right for my baby, due in March 2002, so I plan to breast-feed. How long should I give my baby breast milk only? What advantages do breast-fed babies have?

A. At present, most pediatricians recommend breast-feeding exclusively for at least six months. In fact, for the first month or so, breast-fed babies do not even require additional water though it is OK to offer it. It may seem a small consideration, but city water is not as safe as it could be, so invest in the best bottled water you can find for baby's first encounter with this essential nutrient.

Exclusive breast-feeding for six months has advantages over even four months of breast-feeding, but women need to understand that any amount of breast-feeding, even just a day or a week, will benefit their babies. If milk does a body good, it takes breast milk to make a baby smart. The brain is one of the last organs to complete its development and compared to babies breast-fed for less than three months, babies breast-fed for more than six months scored about eight points higher on intelligence tests given at one year and again at five years. This has encouraged makers of today's baby formulas to add the omega-3 fatty acids found generously in breast milk to their products.

Breast-fed children have other significant advantages over bottle-fed babies:

• Antibodies in breast milk are passed from mother to baby, an immediate aid in avoiding infection and allergies.

• Nutrients from mother's milk are easily assimilated and are perfectly balanced.

• Mother's milk is digested much more easily, reducing colic.

• Breast-feeding promotes proper jaw alignment and tooth development, which later will affect chewing and speech.

• Perhaps most important, a bond is built between mother and baby that nourishes beyond the breast.

Additionally, for the mother:

• Breast-feeding contracts the uterus, helping to expel the placenta and control blood loss.

• Breast milk is always the right temperature and composition, which is much appreciated at middle-of-the-night feedings.

• Breast-feeding helps the mother lose weight, if needed, by using extra calories.

• Breast-feeding is less expensive: The average annual cost of powdered formula is $542 compared to $85 for breast-feeding supplies.

In developing countries or when the mother's nutritional status is compromised, exclusive breast-feeding for four months followed by partial breast-feeding to six months of age has some advantages in reducing the risk of infant death. In these situations babies fed both breast milk and formula show about the same neurological development as babies exclusively breast-fed.

Consult the lactation specialist you will find available wherever you deliver your baby. She can give you, usually through the voice of experience, even more reasons to breast-feed your baby.

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