For years experts have expounded on the virtues of breastfeeding as the best way to feed your newborn. Research is continually supporting this idea, and the positive impact is not exclusive to the babies, as mothers derive a great deal of benefit from the practice, as well.

A new study, set to be published in the journal Pediatrics, has suggested that hundreds of babies’ lives would be saved if 90% of the mothers in this country breast-fed them during the first 6 months of their lives. From an economic perspective, experts have calculated that this translates into billions of dollars in savings.

To arrive at their conclusions, doctors looked at some of the more common childhood illnesses in relation to the cost of treating them. Costs included those incurred through hospitalization and subsequent treatment. Also included in the calculations were future lost wages the might result from illness or death. The analysis supports a previous government study in 2001 which estimated that over 3 billion dollars could be saved if half of new mothers breastfed their babies. Since that time, the cost of medical care has risen substantially, yet rates of breastfeeding have increased only slightly. In fact, by some estimates, nearly 43% of new mothers in this country do some degree of breastfeeding during the first 6 months, but only 12% follow the recommendations established by the government that encourage mothers to exclusively breast-feed during that time.

While the numbers of the current study are only estimates, several experts who weighed in on the analysis support the findings as being sound. This, in turn, supports the belief that breastfeeding can make a profound difference in the health of both child and mother. Studies have found that many of the illnesses that affect babies might be avoided if they were breastfed. Included in this group are stomach viruses, ear infections, diabetes, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and even leukemia.

The difference that breastfeeding can make is so significant that some pediatricians believe that it is severely underappreciated. In fact, rather than a lifestyle choice, they believe it is a public health issue. After all, breast milk is known to contain maternal antibodies that help the child to combat infections. Breast milk is known to influence blood insulin levels, which can subsequently reduce a child’s risk for obesity and diabetes.

The authors stress, however, that the findings are not a call to blame mothers who do not breastfeed or make them feel guilty. There are numerous demands in life that make breastfeeding prohibitively difficult, many of which are beyond a mother’s control.

Some of these challenges may be addressed with the new health care overhaul, which seeks to require large employers to provide a working environment that is more conducive to allowing a mother a chance to obtain breast milk. Hospitals are also being asked to encourage new mothers to breastfeed their newborns right after birth, rather than offering them formula.

If you have questions or concerns, speak with your doctor or your pediatrician. For more information about breast-feeding, visit the websites for the La Leche League and the National Women’s Health Information Center.