There’s no doubt that exclusive breast-feeding is one of the most precious gifts you can give your baby during the first few months of life.

If in some parts of the world breast-feeding can literally be a lifesaver, babies everywhere benefit from receiving nothing but breast milk during the first few months of life, and more after they start eating solids.

As complex and well-designed as formula has become nowadays, it still can’t replace breast milk. Health organizations across the United States are now encouraging mothers to choose breast milk over formula if possible, because of the unique composition and qualities of breast milk. Of course if breast-feeding is not an option for you and your baby, rest assured knowing that formula will still provide all of the important nutrients your baby needs to grow up strong and healthy.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), infants should be exclusively breast-fed for the first 6 months of life in order to achieve optimal growth and development.

The Benefits of Breast Milk

The benefits of breast-feeding are so varied that many health practitioners are now making it a priority to encourage mothers to make every effort to breast-feed, at least for the first year, and even beyond if possible:

  • Babies who are breast-fed exclusively for 6 months or more have fewer gastrointestinal problems, compared to babies who are breast-fed only for 3 or 4 months.
  • The concentration and composition of nutrients, as well as the concentration of antibodies, in breast milk suit baby’s needs perfectly.
  • Babies who are breast-fed have fewer ear infections, better gut health, and fewer respiratory infections.
  • The risk of SIDS is reduced by over a third in breast-fed babies.
  • Some of the benefits in the long run include reduced risk of chronic diseases later in life like diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer, and a lower risk of obesity.
  • The emotional bond that forms between mother and baby during nursing makes for increased cognitive development, and the skin-to-skin contact enhances the neurological and psychosocial development of the little ones. Breast-feeding not only gives babies a sense of security and connection, it also helps mothers fend off postpartum depression.

Aside from balanced nutrition, immune boosting, and generally improved health for babies, research shows that mothers who nurse for at least 12 months have a reduced risk of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, high blood pressure, and rheumatoid arthritis. Not a bad set of side effects of an activity that provides a beautiful and unique connection with your baby during the first couple of years of their life.

While your baby’s diet will start diversifying as they reach 6 months of age, they should still be nursing at least until they reach 12 months, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The WHO recommends that infants be breast-fed until they reach 24 months.

Introducing Solids

As you reach the mark of the first 6 months, you’ll be keeping track of a lot of milestones. Your baby has grown a whole lot with breast milk as their only food, and the time has come to slowly introduce solid food.

And slowly is the key word. New foods can be a challenge for the baby in more than one way. Choose the time when you think baby will be most receptive to try a new food and if there are any signs of refusal, leave it at that.

What should the first foods be? Some professionals challenge the long-held view that rice cereal should be one of the first to give to your baby. They argue that it’s less nutritious than more wholesome alternatives like brown rice, avocadoes, and pears, for example. Avocado is a well-regarded choice. Its high content of healthy fats is very useful for brain development, as well as its content of iron, needed by growing babies.

Here are a few things to remember when you introduce the solids:

  • A little goes a long way. Start with a teaspoon and watch for possible allergic reactions like mild skin reactions, diarrhea or constipation, and mucus in the stool.
  • Wait for at least three to five days. Hold off before you introduce the next food and watch for your baby’s reaction. Baby’s taste in food can surprise you. They might just love foods you think of as bland, and reject others you assume they’ll enjoy.
  • Avoid pesticides. As much as possible, buy organic. While organic foods do not differ in their nutritional content from conventional foods, many studies have now shown that children’s health is affected by chemicals used in conventional farming.
  • Keep baby hydrated. Once the baby starts eating solids, they will need to drink water. Avoid juice and its high sugar content. Good habits start early.
  • Eat together. If your baby is not yet into trying solid food, have them sit at the dinner table. Seeing you eat and enjoy your meals might just make them very curious to try some.
  • Avoid processed foods. Steer clear of sugar, honey, cow’s milk, and salt. Opt for freshly made mashed food rather than canned. If you are on the go, choose high-quality organic baby food with no additives of any kind.
  • Start baby off the right way. Use small portions and don’t have them finish leftovers. Also, eating with their hands is perfectly fine. They’ll learn the texture of various foods and the whole process will improve their motor skills.

Returning to Work

Whether you took a few months to spend with your baby or longer, returning to work doesn’t mean that breast-feeding has to stop. Some employers are very flexible when it comes to new mothers and arrangements can be made for part-time schedules, flexible hours, or even working from home.

Once you find a good caregiver for your little one while you’re away at work, you can figure out the extended breast-feeding as well. Ideally you would want to nurse your baby before and after work rather than rely on expressed milk. Studies have shown that the quality of stored breast milk may not be the same as the one babies get directly from the breast.

Depending on the storage conditions — glass is preferable to plastic containers — milk can also become contaminated if stored for too long or under less than ideal conditions. Short-term storage is ideal. If possible, aim to express breast milk once a day.

If you can find childcare close to your work so that you can breast-feed at lunch, or if you live close enough so that your caregiver can bring the baby for a “nursing break,” you may want to do so for at least the first few weeks for a smoother transition — especially if your baby is still under 6 months of age.

If you can’t breast-feed baby directly and decide to express milk, ask your employer about a private, clean room with an outlet for an electric pump so your baby can have the freshest milk possible.

Most of all, regardless of which path you choose to follow while continuing to breast-feed your baby, it’s important to push guilt out of the way. Choosing to work, whether part-time or full-time, and continuing to breast-feed, no matter the challenges, is no small task. And it’s indeed an important one to your budding relationship with your baby.

The Takeaway

While breast-feeding isn’t an option for every mom, research is clear that it’s an important part of your growing baby’s nutrition. Formula is always an option for the mom that isn’t able to breast-feed, or chooses not to breast-feed.

The recommendations around how long to continue exclusive breast-feeding are simple: Breast-feed exclusively for the first 6 months, and then continue to breast-feed until at least 12 months, while also introducing solid foods. This will help your baby have a balanced, nutritious diet, and reap the endless benefits of your breast milk.