Breast milk is the best nutrition for babies. Breast-feeding provides many health benefits for both baby and mother. A vitamin D supplement is recommended for all breast-feeding women.
Most women can breast-feed. It is rare for a mother to be physically unable to breast-feed. It doesn’t matter whether you have small or large breasts, or even if you have inverted nipples. The breast tissue is designed to make enough breast milk for your baby. If you have twins, it is usually possible to make enough milk for both babies.
Breast-feeding can, however, take practice and perseverance. As with many things, it is something to be learnt. There are so many benefits to breast-feeding and this leaflet is designed to inform you of the benefits, as well as providing some information on breast-feeding technique and commonly encountered problems. Don’t be scared to ask for help if you are finding breast-feeding difficult. This is common at first and nothing to be ashamed about.
What are the benefits of breast-feeding for the baby?
Formula milk does not match this perfect recipe. Infant formula is made from cow’s milk. The important factors for your baby’s growth and protection cannot be manufactured in a factory and added to infant formula.
No other fluids (such as water) are needed for a breast-fed baby. Even in the hottest weather, the breast milk composition changes, to provide everything your baby needs. Even when your baby is unwell – for example having diarrhoea, though this is less likely if you breast-feed your baby – you should continue to breast-feed. (In some circumstances, you might be advised by a medical professional to give extra fluids or oral rehydration therapy. However, for mild illnesses, breast milk alone is fine.)
Even if your baby is premature, or unwell and in hospital (for example, in the neonatal unit or special care baby unit), breast milk is still best for your baby. You may be asked to try to express some milk and can be shown how to do this.
Breast-feeding reduces the risk of developing infection
Breast-fed babies have fewer infections in their early life. The main reason for this is that antibodies are passed in the breast milk from mother to baby. Antibodies are proteins that help to fight infection. Compared with babies who are not breast-fed, babies who are breast-fed have less diarrhoea and are sick (vomit) less often; they have fewer chest infections, fewer ear infections and are less likely to need to be admitted to hospital.
Breast-feeding reduces the risk of cot death
There is a lot of evidence from research that sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – also known as cot death – is less common in breast-fed babies. It is not fully understood why this is, although the fact that breast-fed babies have fewer infections is possibly a contributing factor.
Developmental and emotional factors and bonding
Performance in childhood intelligence tests is better in children who have been breast-fed compared with those who have been bottle-fed.
It is thought that breast-feeding enhances the bonding process between baby and mother. Early skin contact is promoted from the moment of birth. Your baby needs to feel safe, secure and warm. Being cuddled naked, against the mother’s bare skin (covered with a blanket or towel) for as long as possible, is important. This should be done even if you decide not to breast-feed. Putting your newborn baby straight to your breast for a feed is ideal.
Breast-fed babies are much less likely to become constipated. They also tend to be less fussy when it comes to new foods at weaning. Breast milk appears to help loosen a newborn baby’s mucus. It also acts as a laxative and helps with the passage of the first poo (stools). The first stools are called meconium and are sticky, black and like tar.
Advantages in long-term health
There is now good evidence from research studies that, on average, the following health problems in later life are less common in those who had been breast-fed compared with those who had not:
Exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life provides maximum benefit. However, even in partially breast-fed babies and in those who are breast-fed for a shorter time, there is still a reduction in the risk of developing the above diseases.
Cow’s milk should not be introduced for feeds until after the baby is 1 year of age (although cheese, yoghurts and milk on cereals are fine for weaning).
What are the benefits of breast-feeding for the mother?
Advantages to health
Various studies have looked at the possible health benefits to women who have breast-fed. There is now good evidence that, on average, the following health problems are less common in women who have breast-fed one or more babies compared with those who have never breast-fed:
Breast-feeding is a form of contraception until your baby is 6 months old, providing you haven’t had a period and your baby is exclusively breast-fed. See separate leaflet called Contraception After Having a Baby for more details.
Another health benefit for some mothers is that it can be easier to lose weight after giving birth if you are breast-feeding.
Breast-feeding is the most convenient method of feeding. There is no preparation time and it is always available. This can be a real benefit when you are tired and woken in the middle of the night to feed your baby.
Breast-feeding is free. Formula feeding costs, on average, at least £500 per year excluding the cost of bottles and steriliser.