Breast milk is the perfect food for your baby. Many health organizations, including the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), recommend that mothers breastfeed their newborn babies. If possible, babies should get only breast milk for the first 6 months of their lives. Mothers can continue to breastfeed until 12 months, or longer if able and willing.
Deciding whether to breastfeed is a very personal decision. It is based on lifestyle, desire, and health of the mother and baby. You may plan to breastfeed but not be able to once you try. Or it may be too stressful. Talk to your doctor or a breastfeeding expert about the pros and cons of breastfeeding. You may want to have this conversation before giving birth so that you are prepared.
If you are unable to breastfeed or choose not to, it is okay. You can still develop a close bond with your baby. The most important thing is that your baby is fed, whether that is with breast milk, formula, or both.
Path to improved health
There are several advantages to breastfeeding. Breast milk naturally contains the nutrition your baby needs. As your baby grows, the nutrients in your breast milk change. This fulfills your baby’s changing nutritional needs. Breast milk is easier to digest than formula. It also is full of antibodies that help protect your baby from infections.
Breastfed babies may be less likely to have:
- Ear, urinary, or respiratory tract infections
- Skin problems
- Tooth decay and infections in the mouth
- Diarrhea, constipation, and gas
- Intestinal diseases
- Childhood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- Anemia (low blood iron)
- Heart attack and stroke in adulthood
Breastfeeding can benefit you as well as your baby. It helps your uterus shrink to the size it was before pregnancy. It can also help you lose some of your pregnancy weight. This is because your body burns calories to produce breast milk. Your periods won’t return for several months while breastfeeding. However, breastfeeding is not a form of birth control.
In addition, mothers who breastfeed may be less likely to have:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Breast cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Anemia (low blood iron)
- Post-partum depression
- Osteoporosis (weak bones)
Other benefits of breastfeeding include:
- Mother-baby bond. Breastfeeding provides time to interact with your baby one-on-one. The physical contact comforts both of you and makes your baby feel more secure.
- No waiting when your baby is hungry. You don’t have to mix formula or clean and sterilize bottles and nipples.
- Less expense. Breast milk is free. There are only a few things you may need to buy. These include nursing bras, nursing pads, and a breast pump if you plan to pump milk to give to your baby.
- Environmental benefits. You won’t have formula cans or bottle liners to throw away. You’ll also use less water and energy washing bottles.
Things to consider
What are the challenges of breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding, especially when done exclusively, takes a lot of time. It is a big commitment for mothers to make. You are the only person who can feed your baby. Some women have a hard time breastfeeding, especially in the beginning. It may be painful and stressful. Consider getting help from a lactation specialist.
Women who breastfeed also need to watch their diet. Your body requires more calories to produce enough milk. Anything you eat and drink can be passed to your baby through breast milk. You should limit caffeine to less than 300 milligrams a day. You should avoid alcohol or be careful when consuming it. Wait at least 2 hours after one alcoholic drink before breastfeeding. Or you can pump milk, using a breast pump, and throw it away to prevent passing alcohol to your baby. Certain foods also can affect your baby, such as spicy food or dairy products. You should not eat fish that are high in mercury.
What about supplementing breast milk with formula?
Talk to your doctor or another breastfeeding expert before you start supplementing. Adding formula to your baby’s diet can decrease your breast milk production. Your baby may start to prefer a bottle, and not latch on to your breasts.
Can I use a breast pump instead of breastfeeding?
If you prefer, you can use a breast pump to get your breast milk. Then, you can store it and feed it to your baby from a bottle. This may be useful if you work, have a busy schedule, or need help with feedings.
I need to go back to work. Can I still breastfeed my baby?
Yes. If possible, try to find a caregiver who is close to your workplace. This may allow you to visit your baby at least once during the day to breastfeed. You also can pump and store your breast milk while at work. You can buy or rent an electric or hand-operated breast pump. Then, the caregiver can feed your baby bottles of your breast milk.
If you decide to do this, try to plan ahead. Talk to your employer about the time you’ll need each day to visit your baby and/or pump. If you plan to pump, you will need a private room that has electricity (for an electric pump).
Questions to ask your doctor
- What are the benefits of breastfeeding?
- What are the risks of breastfeeding?
- How do I know if I can medically breastfeed my baby?
- What are the signs that my baby will not breastfeed?
- How do I learn how to breastfeed?
- Can you provide tips on how to get started?
- How long should I breastfeed?
- When should I start giving my baby formula or other foods?
American Academy of Family Physicians: Breastfeeding: Hints to Help You Get Off to a Good Start
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.