Why is breast-feeding important?

Breast milk is the healthiest food for babies and offers the most complete nutrition, such as antibodies to help fight illness. With the exception of a daily vitamin D supplement, breast milk is the only source of nutrition needed during the first 6 months of life. After 6 months, iron-fortified foods are gradually introduced as you continue to breast-feed. All major professional medical organizations that focus on children, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recommend breast-feeding for at least the first year of a baby’s life or longer if desired. Your baby receives more health benefits the longer you breast-feed. Also, your breast milk changes to meet your baby’s nutritional needs as he or she grows.

Breast-feeding helps your body recover from the stresses of pregnancy, labor, and delivery. It also lowers your risk for developing breast cancer. The longer you breast-feed, the more this risk is reduced.

The first few weeks of breast-feeding typically are the most difficult. You are recovering from childbirth, adjusting to hormonal changes, and operating with little sleep. Many women are also mentally and emotionally exhausted. Minor problems, such as sore or cracked nipples, may seem overwhelming. However, most breast-feeding problems are easily prevented or solved. Overcoming these challenges during these first few weeks boosts your confidence, which makes you more likely to continue breast-feeding for a full year. Most women who persevere with breast-feeding have a great sense of accomplishment and recognize the importance of providing their child with the best possible nutrition.

What are the benefits of breastfeeding?

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.

Breast milk

The exact properties of breast milk are not entirely understood, but the nutrient content of mature milk is relatively stable. Its ingredients come from the mother’s food supply and the nutrients in her bloodstream at the time of feeding. If that is not enough, nutrients come from the mother’s bodily stores. Some studies estimate that a woman who breastfeeds her infant exclusively uses 500–600 more calories a day just producing milk for her offspring. The exact composition of breast milk varies from day to day, and even hour to hour, depending on both the manner in which the baby nurses and the mother’s food consumption and environment, so the ratio of water to fat fluctuates.

Foremilk, the milk released at the beginning of a feed, is watery, low in fat and high in carbohydrates; hind milk, which is increasingly released as the feed progresses, is creamier. There is no sharp distinction between foremilk and hind milk, the change is very gradual. Research from Peter Hartmann’s group tells us that fat content of the milk is primarily determined by the emptiness of the breast—the less milk in the breast, the higher the fat content. The breast can never be truly "emptied" since milk production is continuous.

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