Topic updated: July 2012

Breastfeeding / Lactation

Breastfeeding, also called nursing, can be an easy and inexpensive way for a mother to feed her child. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Policy Statement on Breastfeeding, women who don’t have health problems should exclusively breastfeed their infants for at least the first six months of life.  The AAP suggests that women try to breastfeed for the first 12 months of life because of the benefits to both the mother and baby.

Benefits for Babies, Moms, and Families

Breastfeeding offers many benefits to the baby: 
  • Breast milk provides the right balance of nutrients to help an infant grow into a strong and healthy toddler. 
  • Breastfed infants, and those who are fed expressed breast milk, have fewer deaths during the first year and experience fewer illnesses than babies fed formula. 
  • Some of the nutrients in breast milk also help protect an infant against some common childhood illnesses and infections, such as diarrhea, middle ear infections, and certain lung infections.
  • Some recent NICHD-supported research also suggests that breast milk contains important fatty acids (building blocks) that help an infant's brain develop. Two specific fatty acids, known as DHA and AA, may help increase infants’ cognitive skills. Many types of infant formulas available in the United States are fortified with DHA and AA, and all formula available for preterm infants is fortified with these fatty acids.

Breastfeeding also benefits the mother:

  • In response to the baby's sucking, the mother's body releases a hormone that makes her uterus contract and get smaller.
  • Many mothers also get emotional benefits from breastfeeding because of the closeness of this interaction with the baby and from the satisfaction of helping to nourish their babies.
  • Some research suggest that mothers who breastfeed their babies have fewer episodes of post-delivery depression.
  • There is evolving evidence to indicate that certain types of cancer (such as breast, uterus, and ovarian cancer) occur less often in mothers who have breastfed their babies. 
  • Many societies and cultures also encourage mothers to breastfeed, which can offer support to a new mother.

What if I have trouble breastfeeding?

Even though breastfeeding is a natural process, it's not always easy. Many health care providers suggest that women get lactation support to learn how to breastfeed and what is involved with breastfeeding. Many health centers, clinics, and hospitals have lactation support specialists, such as an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or a Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC), on staff. Ask your health care provider for more information about getting help with breastfeeding. Even with help, though, some women still have trouble breastfeeding or cannot breastfeed.

When not to breastfeed

In certain situations, health care providers may advise a woman not to breastfeed:
  • A woman with certain health conditions, such as HIV or active tuberculosis, should not breastfeed because she risks giving the infection to her infant through her breast milk.
  • Women who actively use drugs or do not control their alcohol intake, or who have a history of these situations, may also be advised not to breastfeed.
  • Certain medicines, including some mood stabilizers and migraine medicines, can also pass through the breast milk and cause harm to the infant.
  • Women with certain chronic illnesses may be advised not to breastfeed, or to take special steps to ensure their own health while breastfeeding. For example, women who have diabetes may need to eat slightly more food while they breastfeed, to prevent their blood sugar levels from dropping.
  • Women who have had breast surgery in the past may face some difficulties in breastfeeding.

Please note: engorgement, hardening of the breast, “breast abscess,” fever, and use of pain medications or antibiotics are NOT reasons to stop breastfeeding. In fact, in some cases—such as breast abscess or breast hardening—emptying of the breast helps to relieve the problem.

If a mother stops breastfeeding before the child is a year old, then she should feed her infant iron-fortified, commercially available formula. Health care providers advise women not to give their infants cow's milk until the child is at least a year old.

If you have any health conditions, or you are taking any medications or over-the-counter supplements, you should discuss breastfeeding with your health care provider.

Read more about breastfeeding at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.

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