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Why breastfeeding is the "gold standard" for babies' health

What are the benefits of breastfeeding?
What are the health benefits of breastfeeding? 03:47

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is pushing back against a New York Times report that the Trump administration tried to block an effort from the United Nations to promote breastfeeding. The Times reported that the U.S. wanted to remove language in a resolution that called on governments worldwide to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding.

U.S. officials also reportedly threatened Ecuador, which had planned to introduce the resolution, with punitive trade measures, though their efforts were largely unsuccessful as the final resolution maintained most of the original wording, according to The New York Times.

The stance has puzzled many health experts, as decades of research has shown that breast milk is the healthiest option for babies overall.

In a statement to CBS News, HHS said "women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies."

Global health experts stress that breast milk is especially important for infants in poor countries, where clean water to mix with powdered formula may be hard to come by. 

"There's no arguing that breastfeeding is considered the gold standard of nutrition," CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula told "CBS This Morning."

This based on the fact that it has special nutrients, she explains. "It has hormones, antibodies, enzymes, live cells and so that is why the American Academy of Pediatrics and others recommend that infants be exclusively breastfed until six months and then to go on to continue breastfeeding up to one year with, at that point, the addition of foods," Narula said.

Research shows that infants who have been breastfed have lower rates of asthma, obesity, diabetes, SIDS, and ear and respiratory infections.

Mothers who breastfeed also see health benefits themselves, including a decreased risk of postpartum hemorrhage, earlier return to pre-pregnancy weight, and a decreased risk of ovarian and breast cancer.

According to a study from the World Health Organization published in The Lancet, breastfeeding could prevent 823,000 infant deaths and 20,000 maternal deaths every year, worldwide.

Narula notes that of course there are women who cannot breastfeed or choose not to, and that is a safe option in the United States.

"In that case, formula is a safe and healthy alternative option," she said. "It's been around since the 1920s. It's evolved over time to try to meet the composition and performance of breast milk. It's never going to meet it exactly because it doesn't have the antibodies, but manufacturers have to meet nutrient requirements set by the FDA and they all have similar compositions of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, mineral, water and fat."

And while guidance from pediatricians remains that babies should be exclusively breastfed until six months, a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that feeding solid food to babies at an earlier age may help them sleep better.

That study looked at about 1,300 infants starting at 3 months and divided them into two groups: one that was exclusively breastfed until 6 months and one where the babies started solid foods as early as 16 weeks. The latter group slept on average about two hours longer per week and woke up about two times fewer per week. Not surprisingly, quality of life was also improved for moms.

"It may be beneficial for sleep all around," Narula said.

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