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What Nursing Can -- and Can't -- Do

For your baby's optimal health, you should breastfeed for at least a year, recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). But what if you're like 78 percent of nursing mothers, and stop after six months?

You've still given your child some health benefits, experts say. In fact, a woman who nurses for only one to five days after delivery passes on powerful, disease-fighting antibodies. And while exclusive breastfeeding is most effective, any breastfeeding -- even when supplemented with formula -- provides substantial benefits, says Lawrence Gartner, M.D., chairman of the Work Group on Breastfeeding at the AAP.

Here, the lowdown on the health advantages that nursing provides:

BREASTFEEDING MAY...

Protect against ear infections. Babies nursed exclusively for four to six months are 50 percent less likely to get ear infections than those who aren't. This may be because breast milk has antibodies that inhibit bacterial infections, notes Jay Gordon, M.D., a pediatrician and member of the La Leche League International Health Advisory Council.

Reduce the risk of allergies. According to one long-term study, more than one month of sole breastfeeding can help lower a child's chance of developing a food allergy at age 3 and a respiratory allergy as a teen. The study also found that exclusive nursing for six months or more reduced the risk of eczema, an allergic condition of the skin.

Help prevent diarrhea and E. coli infection. Breast milk slows down the growth of bacteria in the intestines, which is why doctors think breastfed babies have fewer episodes of these conditions.

Bolster resistance to respiratory infections. Breast milk also inhibits the growth of bacteria in the lungs, mouth, and nose. A 1998 study showed that infants solely breastfed for six months have shorter episodes of respiratory illness (pneumonia, runny nose) during that time. Other research has found that exclusive breastfeeding reduced the number of respiratory infections for the baby's first four months of life.

BREASTFEEDING MAY NOT...

Make a child smarter. Though nursing is associated with an increase in a child's cognitive skills, experts debate whether the breast milk makes the difference.

Cut down on colds and flu. Most kids get these common illnesses, but breast milk can reduce the amount, length, and intensity of colds and flu. And if a mother and baby get sick at the same time, the mom's immune system will produce antibodies, which are passed on to her child through her milk.

Help a child feel more secure. Breastfeeding has a calming effect on a woman, and that may carry over to the baby. But mothers who bottlefeed can feel just as serene. And there are many ways, other than breastfeeding, to nurture and form a loving bond with your baby.

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