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Breastfeeding is a natural way for mothers to supply their infants with all the nutrition and food they need for the first months of life. It may also help mothers recover more quickly from childbirth.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life.

After that, both organizations suggest babies begin eating other foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and grains. They do add babies should maintain some level of breastfeeding.

Yet, the decision to breastfeed is a personal matter. Not everyone can or wants to breastfeed. Alternatives are available that help babies grow and thrive.

You can expect to encounter strong opinions when deciding whether to breastfeed or not. That makes gathering your own information so you can formulate the best choice for your family important.

This overview will explain breastfeeding's benefits, drawbacks, considerations you'll need to make, and more.

Breastfeeding has both short- and long-term health benefits for mother and infant. For the baby, these benefits include:

  • Reduced infections. There's a correlation between babies who are breastfed and having fewer childhood infections, such as ear, respiratory, and gut infections as well as fewer colds.
  • Better immunity against viruses and bacteria. Breast milk contains immunoglobulins, or antibodies, from the mother. These proteins help strengthen the infant's immune system so it can defend itself.
  • Reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Breastfed babies have a lower risk for SIDS, both in the first month and first year of the baby’s life.
  • A healthier weight. Children who are breastfed may have a lower rate of childhood obesity compared to formula-fed babies.
  • Lower risk of diabetes. Breastfeeding reduces a child’s risk for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
  • Satisfying changing nutritional needs. Babies require different levels of nutrients at the various phases of year one. A mother’s milk supply will naturally change with the baby’s needs.

The benefits of breastfeeding aren’t for baby alone. Breastfeeding mothers may experience some benefits from breastfeeding as well. These benefits include:

Breastfeeding does have some drawbacks. Keep these considerations in mind if you’re trying to decide whether breastfeeding is right for you and your infant.

These considerations include:

  • Discomfort. Many people experience discomfort and pain in the first week or 10 days after beginning breastfeeding. This is often temporary, but it can make the first feedings difficult.
  • Lack of flexibility. New breastfeeding mothers are often bound by their infant’s feeding schedule. In the first weeks, babies may eat as many as 12 times per day. That can make juggling work, running errands, and other tasks hard.
  • Inability to measure milk. With breastfeeding, it’s hard to know how much milk you’re producing and how much baby is eating. You’ll need to rely on other factors, such as baby’s weight and daily wet diapers, to know if they’re eating enough.
  • Restricted diet and medications. You share a lot with your infant if you’re breastfeeding, including food, medicines, and alcohol. Minimal amounts of these substances can pass through your milk to your infant. While most are too small to be problematic, you'll need to avoid certain things the entire time you’re breastfeeding.

Formula is a nutritious alternative to breast milk for those who choose to use it or need to because of medical reasons.

Baby formula sold in the United States is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. While formula doesn't match natural breast milk completely, it does have a rich assortment of:

  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • protein
  • fats
  • carbohydrates

This is nutrition your infant will use to grow and thrive. Mothers who choose to use formula can rest assured their babies are well fed.

A baby’s body doesn't process formula as quickly as it does breast milk. That may allow you or another caregiver more time between feedings.

However, formula can be costly. Depending on the type and quantity your baby uses, a month’s supply could cost more than $100.

Before your baby is born, your body will begin producing breast milk. It’s preparing you for the infant’s arrival and the nourishment you'll need to give them right away.

Your first feeding may be within a few hours of childbirth. That first breast milk is called colostrum. It’s a thick, yellow, sticky substance that's rich with nutrients. It helps prime your baby’s gastrointestinal system for future feedings.

A few short days after giving birth, your body will begin producing a different type of breast milk. This milk is also very rich in nutrients and will fully sustain your infant for their first months.

Breastfeeding is a bonding exercise. You'll learn your baby’s hunger cues and they'll learn to respond to your body.

Of course, you'll spend a lot of time together. Expect to feed your baby 8 to 12 times per day for the first few months.

In addition to providing nourishment for your child, skin-to-skin contact experienced through breastfeeding is a wonderful way to boost your mother-baby bond.

Breastfeeding is a natural process. That doesn't mean it’s easy. Indeed, breastfeeding is a skill. It must be learned and practiced until it feels normal for both you and baby.

Start by resting your baby in a comfortable breastfeeding position that’s facing you. If baby has to twist their neck at all, they may not breastfeed well.

Uncover a breast from your bra or shirt. Gently stroke your baby’s lower lip with your nipple. Their mouth will naturally open wide, and their tongue will cup and lower into their mouth.

Place your baby’s mouth directly onto your nipple. They'll instinctually close and begin to draw.

You'll know your baby’s mouth is positioned correctly if you see their lips pursed outward and their mouth covers all of your nipple and most of your darker areola.

If you experience any discomfort or pain, gently break the baby’s suction. Slide your pinkie between the corner of your baby’s mouth and your nipple. Push down. The latch will pop. Pull baby away.

Before bringing baby back to your nipple, try to get them to open their mouth as wide as possible. Repeat the steps until the latch is comfortable and your baby is breastfeeding in a smooth, even rhythm.

Establishing a good latch will help baby get adequate milk. It'll prevent pain and discomfort for you too.

If you continue to struggle with producing a strong latch, talk to your pediatrician or a lactation consultant. They are there to help you.

Sometimes there can be physical issues that prevent your baby from breastfeeding properly, including:

All of these can be overcome, but you may need additional guidance.

Many moms experience pain and soreness in the first few days of breastfeeding. This is very common. You can take a few steps to help ease the pain in breastfeeding nipples until it subsides completely:

  • Begin breastfeeding with the least painful nipple. The strongest suction comes when your baby is most hungry. The suction will get weaker as they fill up.
  • Wear a better-fitting bra. Tight bras can rub and irritate your nipples. Look for special breastfeeding bras that offer proper support and protection around the nipple.
  • Air-dry nipples. Before you put your shirt or bra back on after breastfeeding, make sure your nipples are completely dry. The moisture from milk on the skin can irritate them.
  • Place a warm, wet washcloth on your nipples. The heat can help soothe pain.
  • Ask about a cream or ointment. Your doctor may suggest an over-the-counter product that can soothe stinging and discomfort. Several breastfeeding-safe options are available.

Do you want to learn more about sore nipples and breastfeeding? Read 13 ways to Manage Sore Nipples from Breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding and thrush

If you begin experiencing sudden intense pain in your breast, you may have a thrush infection. Thrush is a fungal infection. It develops in warm, moist environments. Your baby’s mouth can develop oral thrush too.

Symptoms of a thrush infection in a breastfeeding mother include severe, sudden pain. The skin around the nipple or areola may flake and peel. The breasts can be tender to touch.

Babies with a thrush infection may develop white patches on the inside of cheeks or on the tongue or gums.

Make an appointment to see your doctor if you suspect you or your baby have developed the infection.

With breastfeeding, it’s hard to know precisely how much milk your baby is getting with each feeding. Instead of trying to measure ounces, look for signs in other places:

  • Your baby makes plenty of dirty diapers. Babies who are getting enough milk have 6 to 8 wet diapers per day.
  • Your baby is gaining weight. After an initial weight drop in the first few days after delivery, your baby should begin steadily gaining weight. If the weight continues to fall, you may not be producing enough milk. Talk with your baby’s pediatrician or a lactation consultant if baby isn't gaining weight.
  • Your baby shows no signs of hunger. Babies who are fed are content. If your baby shows hunger cues more frequently, they may not be getting enough milk in each session.

Here's a quick breakdown of how many diapers cue a well-fed baby:

Days from birthNumber of wet diapersNumber of dirty diapers
1–31–21–2
44-64
5–286+3+

A lactation consultant will likely come visit you in the hospital in your baby’s first 24 hours. These healthcare providers are trained to help mothers learn to breastfeed.

They'll watch you while breastfeeding, offering instruction and correction. They may help you understand what a good latch feels like. They can answer any questions you have too.

After you leave the hospital, you can also seek out a lactation consultant if you have questions, need advice, or want additional training. Remember, breastfeeding is a learned skill. It takes time and practice.

Your insurance may cover a lactation consultant. To find one, ask your insurance provider about your benefits and if they have a list of covered lactation consultants. Your doctor or pediatrician is likely to be familiar with a lactation consultant too.

Likewise, the hospital where you delivered your baby may have people to suggest. You can also ask friends and family members for recommendations.

There's no specific diet for breastfeeding mothers, but you do need to eat more calories than mothers who aren't producing milk for their infants. Precisely what you need depends on your infant’s age and how often you’re breastfeeding them.

In the first six months, you need an additional 500 calories per day. After six months, you’ll still need an additional 400 to 500 calories per day.

Don’t supplement your diet with processed food or empty calories. Aim to eat a balanced diet of protein, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats.

You should be drinking adequate water too. Each day you produce about 25 ounces of fluid with breast milk. Drink when you're thirsty. Watch for signs that you need more water, such as darker urine, dry mouth, or infrequent urination.

You can learn more about diet and breastfeeding here:

Breastfeeding and galactagogues

You can use galactagogues to try to boost your milk supply. Some foods have these natural milk boosters. Many over-the-counter breastfeeding supplements contain natural milk boosters, such as fenugreek, milk thistle, and malunggay.

Research suggests these products may help increase milk production, but talk with your doctor before you begin using them.

It's possible to sustain breastfeeding once you return to work. In fact, many people do it. It just requires some planning and work with your baby to make the transition seamless.

In the United States, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires most employers to offer breastfeeding mothers a room where they can comfortably pump during the first year of their babies’ lives.

This allows you the opportunity to maintain breastfeeding while being away from your infant.

You'll have to transition your baby from breastfeeding to drinking breast milk from a bottle to make this work. Consider offering daytime feedings by bottle instead of breast to get baby used to bottle-feeding. That means you'll also need to start pumping before returning to work.

To do this, maintain early morning and late-night feedings with the breast, but pump enough milk for a bottle in the day. Also, plan to pump at the times you'd typically feed so you can keep a steady supply of milk.

Start this process several weeks before you plan to return work. If you're planning to return to work right away, you can also begin the process almost immediately following the birth of your baby.

You can also do a combination of breast milk and formula if that's easier or works better for you and your family.

Do you want to learn about safely storing and using expressed breast milk? Read How to Safely Store, Use, and Thaw Frozen Breast Milk.

Leading healthcare organizations, like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), AAP, and WHO, recommend exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life.

After that point, you can begin introducing solid foods. That will begin to reduce how much breastfeeding you do.

ACOG and AAP say supplemental breastfeeding is good for the first full year. WHO suggests you can practice extended breastfeeding and breastfeed your baby up to age 2.

But when to stop breastfeeding is a personal decision. Do what works best for you and your family.

Weaning your baby is a process, but it can be accomplished. You can follow your baby’s lead and wean naturally as they begin eating other foods and drinking cow's milk, juice, or other beverages.

Or you can take charge and decide when the weaning process will begin. This may be met with some resistance, but timing and persistence can help you overcome any obstacle.

Start slowly. Gradually reduce the amount of breastfeeding. This helps your baby adjust to scaled-back feedings. Your breasts will naturally stop producing as much milk too.

A daytime feeding may be easiest to skip at first. You can keep your child busy during that normal feeding period by finding an activity to do or being away from the house.

Avoid normal breastfeeding spots during this period. The familiar scenes may conjure up cravings for your baby. By steering you and baby away from those chairs, beds, or other spots, you can help change the habit.

The decision to breastfeed is a personal choice. Not everyone can or wants to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is just one way to provide proper nutrition to your baby in those important first months of their life.

To help you through the process, it’s important to get plenty of rest, eat a balanced diet, and stay hydrated. This will keep your milk supply robust and your energy high so you can maintain breastfeeding in the manner you want.