Making the decision to breastfeed is a personal matter. It’s also one that’s likely to draw strong opinions from friends and family.
Many medical experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, strongly recommend breastfeeding exclusively (no formula, juice, or water) for 6 months. And breastfeeding for a year at least with other foods which should be started at 6 months of age, such as vegetables, grains, fruits, proteins.
Breastfeeding is the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large.
Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by WHO as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth.
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.
But you and your baby are unique, and the decision is up to you. This overview of breastfeeding can help you decide.
What Are the Benefits of Breastfeeding for Your Baby?
Breast milk provides the ideal nutrition for infants. It has a nearly perfect mix of vitamins, protein, and fat — everything your baby needs to grow. And it’s all provided in a form more easily digested than infant formula. Breast milk contains antibodies that help your baby fight off viruses and bacteria. Breastfeeding lowers your baby’s risk of having asthma or allergies. Plus, babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months, without any formula, have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and bouts of diarrhea. They also have fewer hospitalizations and trips to the doctor.
Breastfeeding has been linked to higher IQ scores in later childhood in some studies. What’s more, the physical closeness, skin-to-skin touching, and eye contact all help your baby bond with you and feel secure. Breastfed infants are more likely to gain the right amount of weight as they grow rather than become overweight children. The AAP says breastfeeding also plays a role in the prevention of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). It’s been thought to lower the risk of diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers as well, but more research is needed.
Types of Breastfeeding
All women, children, and families are different, so not everyone breastfeeds in the same way. Therefore, there are different breastfeeding practices. Some women breastfeed fully, some breastfeed partially, and some breastfeed minimally. Here are some of the ways that women choose to breastfeed.
- Exclusive Breastfeeding: Exclusive breastfeeding is putting a child to the breast for every feeding without giving a bottle or any other form of supplementation such as formula, water, or baby food. When it’s safe and possible, exclusive breastfeeding is the recommended way to feed your child for the first four to six months.
- Combining Breastfeeding and Formula Feeding: Some women want to breastfeed, but they aren’t able to breastfeed exclusively, or they choose not to. In these cases, a child may breastfeed part of the time or most of the time, but he will also get formula as part of his daily routine. The combination of breastfeeding and formula feeding is called partial breastfeeding.
- Breastfeeding Along With Complementary Foods: Breastfeeding along with the addition of solid foods is called complementary feeding. Complementary foods are often added to a child’s diet between four and six months of age.
- Comfort Nursing: Breastfeeding is about so much more than just nutrition. If you cannot make enough breast milk, or if your child is older and gets most of his nutrition from solid foods, nursing at the breast is still beneficial and valuable. Beyond nutrients and fluids, breastfeeding provides emotional support and a feeling of security. When your child is hurt, sick, or going through a difficult time, comfort nursing can help fulfill the psychological and emotional needs of your child.
A Little About Breast Milk
Breast milk is the ideal source of nutrition for babies. From colostrum to transitional breast milk to mature breast milk, it’s just what your baby needs at every stage.
Breast milk is made up of a unique combination of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals that adjust with your child as he or she grows. It also contains immune-boosting antibodies, white blood cells, and enzymes that help protect your child from some of the common childhood illnesses.
While infant formula is a safe alternative for babies who cannot breastfeed, it can’t match what’s in breast milk. Scientists are still discovering all the different components in breast milk and why they’re important. Plus, breast milk changes throughout a feeding, from day to day, and over time—something that can’t be copied and manufactured in a lab.
Breastfeeding Positions and Latching On
When you’re just getting started with breastfeeding, your baby’s position and the way he attaches to your breast are very important. A good breastfeeding position can encourage a proper latch, and that’s necessary for breastfeeding success. When your baby latches on well, she will be able to remove the breast milk from your breasts effectively. A correct latch allows your child to get enough breast milk, and it helps to prevent breast issues such as sore nipples.
Though it may take some time for your breasts to get used to breastfeeding, breastfeeding should never cause you intense pain. If you are experiencing such discomfort when your baby latches on or attempts to, and it doesn’t dissipate within a minute or two (or with a change in position), it’s worth mentioning it to your doctor, your child’s pediatrician, and/or your lactation consultant.
The Stages of Breastfeeding
The way you breastfeed changes as your baby grows. Exclusively breastfed newborns should be put to the breast on demand, at least every two to three hours throughout the day and night. At two months, your child may be able to go a little longer between feedings, and he may even sleep for a longer stretch at night.
Then, when your baby is between four and six months, you will begin to introduce him to solid foods. At first, your baby won’t be getting very much solid food, so breastfeeding will still be his main source of nutrition. But, as solids become a larger part of your child’s diet, you will be naturally be breastfeeding less.
After your child’s first birthday, he will be eating regular meals and snacks. At this stage, breastfeeding should no longer be the primary source of food or nutrition, but it is still an excellent addition to a healthy toddler diet.
Breastfeeding is not without its challenges. Whether it’s difficult to get started or problems pop up after weeks or months of success, you will probably have to face at least one of the common breastfeeding problems at some point. Sore nipples, breast engorgement, and plugged milk ducts are just a few of the issues that many women experience. Luckily, if you treat them right away, most of the typical challenges are easy to overcome.
Breastfeeding can also be challenging due to issues your baby is facing, such as thrush or a tongue tie.
Breast Milk Supply
Most women can and will make a healthy supply of breast milk. There is only a small percentage of women who will experience a true low milk supply. Typically, low milk supply is more of a worry than an actual problem. But, if you feel as though you’re struggling to make enough, there are some easy steps you can take to try to increase your breast milk supply.
Your body makes breast milk based on a system of supply and demand. If you increase the demand, your body should increase the supply. So, as long as your baby is latching on to your breast correctly, breastfeeding more often or pumping after or in-between feedings will let your body know that you need more breast milk.
Of course, if you’ve tried to increase your milk supply naturally but you still aren’t seeing improvement, talk to your doctor. Depending on your situation, there are breastfeeding herbs and certain medications that may help.
Are There Breastfeeding Benefits for the Mother?
Breastfeeding burns extra calories, so it can help you lose pregnancy weight faster. It releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps your uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size and may reduce uterine bleeding after birth. Breastfeeding also lowers your risk of breast and ovarian cancer. It may lower your risk of osteoporosis, too.
Since you don’t have to buy and measure formula, sterilize nipples, or warm bottles, it saves you time and money. It also gives you regular time to relax quietly with your newborn as you bond.
Will I Make Enough Milk to Breastfeed?
The first few days after birth, your breasts make an ideal “first milk.” It’s called colostrum. Colostrum is thick, yellowish, and scant, but there’s plenty to meet your baby’s nutritional needs. Colostrum helps a newborn’s digestive tract develop and prepare itself to digest breast milk.
Most babies lose a small amount of weight in the first 3 to 5 days after birth. This is unrelated to breastfeeding.
As your baby needs more milk and nurses more, your breasts respond by making more milk. Experts recommend breastfeeding exclusively (no formula, juice, or water) for 6 months. If you supplement with formula, your breasts might make less milk.
Even if you breastfeed less than the recommended 6 months, it’s better to breastfeed for a short time than no time at all. You can add solid food at 6 months but also continue to breastfeed if you want to keep producing milk.
What’s the Best Position for Breastfeeding?
The best position for you is the one where you and your baby are both comfortable and relaxed, and you don’t have to strain to hold the position or keep nursing. Here are some common positions for breastfeeding your baby:
- Cradle position. Rest the side of your baby’s head in the crook of your elbow with his whole body facing you. Position your baby’s belly against your body so he feels fully supported. Your other, “free” arm can wrap around to support your baby’s head and neck — or reach through your baby’s legs to support the lower back.
- Football position. Line your baby’s back along your forearm to hold your baby like a football, supporting his head and neck in your palm. This works best with newborns and small babies. It’s also a good position if you’re recovering from a cesarean birth and need to protect your belly from the pressure or weight of your baby.
- Side-lying position. This position is great for night feedings in bed. Side-lying also works well if you’re recovering from an episiotomy, an incision to widen the vaginal opening during delivery. Use pillows under your head to get comfortable. Then snuggle close to your baby and use your free hand to lift your breast and nipple into your baby’s mouth. Once your baby is correctly “latched on,” support your baby’s head and neck with your free hand so there’s no twisting or straining to keep nursing.
What Are the ABCs of Breastfeeding?
- A = Awareness. Watch for your baby’s signs of hunger, and breastfeed whenever your baby is hungry. This is called “on demand” feeding. The first few weeks, you may be nursing eight to 12 times every 24 hours. Hungry infants move their hands toward their mouths, make sucking noises or mouth movements, or move toward your breast. Don’t wait for your baby to cry. That’s a sign he’s too hungry.
- B = Be patient. Breastfeed as long as your baby wants to nurse each time. Don’t hurry your infant through feedings. Infants typically breastfeed for 10 to 20 minutes on each breast.
- C = Comfort. This is key. Relax while breastfeeding, and your milk is more likely to “let down” and flow. Get yourself comfortable with pillows as needed to support your arms, head, and neck, and a footrest to support your feet and legs before you begin to breastfeed.
Why Do Some Women Choose Not to Breastfeed?
- Some women don’t want to breastfeed in public.
- Some prefer the flexibility of knowing that a father or any caregiver can bottle-feed the baby any time.
- Babies tend to digest formula more slowly than breast milk, so bottle feedings may not be as frequent as breastfeeding sessions.
What Are Some Common Challenges With Breastfeeding?
- Sore nipples. You can expect some soreness in the first weeks of breastfeeding. Make sure your baby latches on correctly, and use one finger to break the suction of your baby’s mouth after each feeding. That will help prevent sore nipples. If you still get sore, be sure you nurse with each breast fully enough to empty the milk ducts. If you don’t, your breasts can become engorged, swollen, and painful. Holding ice or a bag of frozen peas against sore nipples can temporarily ease discomfort. Keeping your nipples dry and letting them “air dry” between feedings helps, too. Your baby tends to suck more actively at the start. So begin feedings with the less-sore nipple.
- Dry, cracked nipples. Avoid soaps, perfumed creams, or lotions with alcohol in them, which can make nipples even more dry and cracked. You can gently apply pure lanolin to your nipples after a feeding, but be sure you gently wash the lanolin off before breastfeeding again. Changing your bra pads often will help your nipples stay dry. And you should use only cotton bra pads.
- Worries about producing enough milk. A general rule of thumb is that a baby who’s wetting six to eight diapers a day is most likely getting enough milk. Avoid supplementing your breast milk with formula, and never give your infant plain water. Your body needs the frequent, regular demand of your baby’s nursing to keep producing milk. Some women mistakenly think they can’t breastfeed if they have small breasts. But small-breasted women can make milk just as well as large-breasted women. Good nutrition, plenty of rest, and staying well hydrated all help, too.
- Pumping and storing milk. You can get breast milk by hand or pump it with a breast pump. It may take a few days or weeks for your baby to get used to breast milk in a bottle. So begin practicing early if you’re going back to work. Breast milk can be safely used within 2 days if it’s stored in a refrigerator. You can freeze breast milk for up to 6 months. Don’t warm up or thaw frozen breast milk in a microwave. That will destroy some of its immune-boosting qualities, andit can cause fatty portions of the breast milk to become super hot. Thaw breast milk in the refrigerator or in a bowl of warm water instead.
- Inverted nipples. An inverted nipple doesn’t poke forward when you pinch the areola, the dark skin around the nipple. A lactation consultant — a specialist in breastfeeding education — can give simple tips that have allowed women with inverted nipples to breastfeed successfully.
- Breast engorgement. Breast fullness is natural and healthy. It happens as your breasts become full of milk, staying soft and pliable. But breast engorgement means the blood vessels in your breast have become congested. This traps fluid in your breasts and makes them feel hard, painful, and swollen. Alternate heat and cold, for instance using ice packs and hot showers, to relieve mild symptoms. It can also help to release your milk by hand or use a breast pump.
- Blocked ducts. A single sore spot on your breast, which may be red and hot, can signal a plugged milk duct. This can often be relieved by warm compresses and gentle massage over the area to release the blockage. More frequent nursing can also help.
- Breast infection (mastitis). This occasionally results when bacteria enter the breast, often through a cracked nipple after breastfeeding. If you have a sore area on your breast along with flu-like symptoms, fever, and fatigue, call your doctor. Antibiotics are usually needed to clear up a breast infection, but you can most likely continue to breastfeed while you have the infection and take antibiotics. To relieve breast tenderness, apply moist heat to the sore area four times a day for 15 to 20 minutes each time.
- Stress. Being overly anxious or stressed can interfere with your let-down reflex. That’s your body’s natural release of milk into the milk ducts. It’s triggered by hormones released when your baby nurses. It can also be triggered just by hearing your baby cry or thinking about your baby. Stay as relaxed and calm as possible before and during nursing — it can help your milk let down and flow more easily. That, in turn, can help calm and relax your infant.
- Premature babies may not be able to breastfeed right away. In some cases, mothers can release breast milk and feed it through a bottle or feeding tube.
- Warning signs. Breastfeeding is a natural, healthy process.