An Overview of Breastfeeding

Women have been breastfeeding for as long as they have been having babies. For thousands of years, breastfeeding (also known as lactation, nursing, and suckling) was the only way for a mother to feed her baby, and it was necessary for a child's survival. Then, in the early 1900s, an alternative to breastfeeding was developed. As infant formula became safer, more women began to choose bottle feeding formula over breastfeeding.

 Over the next few decades, breastfeeding became less and less popular, and by the 1960s breastfeeding rates were at an all-time low. But in the 1970s, breastfeeding rates began to rise slowly.

Today, as we continue to learn about breast milk and all the benefits that breastfeeding provides, breastfeeding is once again gaining in support and popularity. Breastfeeding provides newborns and infants with a complete source of nutrition for the first six months of life.

Then, as children grow, breastfeeding continues to be a nutritious part of a child's diet alongside the addition of solid foods.

Breastfeeding Recommendations

Breastfeeding is the recommended way to feed newborns and infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises mothers to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life and then to breastfeed along with adding solid foods to a baby's diet for at least one year. After one year, the AAP states that a mother and her child can continue with breastfeeding for as long as they both wish to do so.

The World Health Organization (WHO) urges exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, with the continuation of breastfeeding along with solid foods for two years or longer.

Of course, many mothers come to realize that what is recommended by health organizations may not be a fit for them or their baby, either due to personal preferences, lifestyle limitations, and/or physical concerns (such as poor milk production).

Types of Breastfeeding

All women, children, and families are different, so not everyone breastfeeds in the same way. Therefore, there are different breastfeeding practices. Some women breastfeed fully, some breastfeed partially, and some breastfeed minimally. Here are some of the ways that women choose to breastfeed.

  • Exclusive Breastfeeding: Exclusive breastfeeding is putting a child to the breast for every feeding without giving a bottle or any other form of supplementation such as formula, water, or baby food. When it's safe and possible, exclusive breastfeeding is the recommended way to feed your child for the first four to six months. 

  • Combining Breastfeeding and Formula Feeding: Some women want to breastfeed, but they aren't able to breastfeed exclusively, or they choose not to. In these cases, a child may breastfeed part of the time or most of the time, but he will also get formula as part of his daily routine. The combination of breastfeeding and formula feeding is called partial breastfeeding.

  • Breastfeeding Along With Complementary Foods: Breastfeeding along with the addition of solid foods is called complementary feeding. Complementary foods are often added to a child's diet between four and six months of age.

  • Comfort Nursing: Breastfeeding is about so much more than just nutrition. If you cannot make enough breast milk, or if your child is older and gets most of his nutrition from solid foods, nursing at the breast is still beneficial and valuable. Beyond nutrients and fluids, breastfeeding provides emotional support and a feeling of security. When your child is hurt, sick, or going through a difficult time, comfort nursing can help fulfill the psychological and emotional needs of your child.

A Little About Breast Milk

Breast milk is the ideal source of nutrition for babies. From colostrum to transitional breast milk to mature breast milk, it's just what your baby needs at every stage.

Breast milk is made up of a unique combination of proteinfatscarbohydratesvitamins, and minerals that adjust with your child as he or she grows.

It also contains immune-boosting antibodies, white blood cells, and enzymes that help protect your child from some of the common childhood illnesses.

While infant formula is a safe alternative for babies who cannot breastfeed, it can't match what's in breast milk. Scientists are still discovering all the different components in breast milk and why they're important. Plus, breast milk changes throughout a feeding, from day to day, and over time—something that can't be copied and manufactured in a lab.

Breastfeeding Positions and Latching On

When you're just getting started with breastfeeding, your baby's position and the way he attaches to your breast are very important. A good breastfeeding position can encourage a proper latch, and that's necessary for breastfeeding success. When your baby latches on well, she will be able to remove the breast milk from your breasts effectively. A correct latch allows your child to get enough breast milk, and it helps to prevent breast issues such as sore nipples.

 

Though it may take some time for your breasts to get used to breastfeeding, breastfeeding should never cause you intense pain. If you are experiencing such discomfort when your baby latches on or attempts to, and it doesn't dissipate within a minute or two (or with a change in position), it's worth mentioning it to your doctor, your child's pediatrician, and/or your lactation consultant.

The Stages of Breastfeeding

The way you breastfeed changes as your baby grows. Exclusively breastfed newborns should be put to the breast on demand, at least every two to three hours throughout the day and night. At two months, your child may be able to go a little longer between feedings, and he may even sleep for a longer stretch at night.

Then, when your baby is between four and six months, you will begin to introduce him to solid foods. At first, your baby won't be getting very much solid food, so breastfeeding will still be his main source of nutrition. But, as solids become a larger part of your child's diet, you will be naturally be breastfeeding less.

After your child's first birthday, he will be eating regular meals and snacks. At this stage, breastfeeding should no longer be the primary source of food or nutrition, but it is still an excellent addition to a healthy toddler diet.

Breastfeeding Challenges

Breastfeeding is not without its challenges. Whether it's difficult to get started or problems pop up after weeks or months of success, you will probably have to face at least one of the common breastfeeding problems at some point. Sore nipples, breast engorgement, and plugged milk ducts are just a few of the issues that many women experience. Luckily, if you treat them right away, most of the typical challenges are easy to overcome. 

Breastfeeding can also be challenging due to issues your baby is facing, such as thrush or a tongue tie.

Breast Milk Supply

Most women can and will make a healthy supply of breast milk. There is only a small percentage of women who will experience a true low milk supply. Typically, a low milk supply is more of a worry than an actual problem. But, if you feel as though you're struggling to make enough, there are some easy steps you can take to try to increase your breast milk supply.

Your body makes breast milk based on a system of supply and demand. If you increase the demand, your body should increase the supply. So, as long as your baby is latching on to your breast correctly, breastfeeding more often or pumping after or in-between feedings will let your body know that you need more breast milk.

Of course, if you've tried to increase your milk supply naturally but you still aren't seeing an improvement, talk to your doctor. Depending on your situation, there are breastfeeding herbs and certain medications that may help.

Can Every Woman Breastfeed?

Almost all women can breastfeed. Even if you had a C-section, you have small breasts, or your nipples turn inward, chances are you can still breastfeed successfully.

Only a small number of women can't or shouldn't breastfeed. These women may not be able to make enough breast milk because of a previous breast or chest surgery, or they may not be able to breastfeed because they need to have chemotherapy or radiation to treat cancer. Breastfeeding is also not recommended for women who have a health issue such as HIV or tuberculosis, those who use illegal drugs, or women who have to take certain prescription medications that are not compatible with breastfeeding.

Health and Nutrition for Breastfeeding Mothers

While you're breastfeeding, you don't have to follow a strict diet or deprive yourself of your favorite things. As a breastfeeding mom, you can eat almost anything you want. You can even have your morning coffee and your favorite junk foods (although good nutrition is recommended to help you keep your stamina and otherwise stay healthy, of course).

Breastfeeding moms need to stay hydrated, so try to drink about eight glasses of water or other healthy liquids (unsweetened tea, seltzer, etc.) each day. If you've been taking a prenatal vitamin, you can continue to take it while you're breastfeeding. And, talk to your doctor about any other vitamin supplements that you many need.

As for weight loss, breastfeeding may help you lose your pregnancy weight, but it won't happen overnight. Be patient with yourself and give it some time. You shouldn't go on a diet or take diet pills to try to lose weight while you're breastfeeding, but you can exercise. Talk to your doctor about your weight loss goals and make a healthy, realistic plan together. 

Pumping and Breastfeeding

Some women choose to pump and give their children that pumped breast milk. Pumping, even exclusive pumping, is not breastfeeding. It's considered breastmilk feeding. However, if you decide not to breastfeed, or you can't breastfeed because your child is premature or you have to go to work or school, pumping is a wonderful way to provide your child with breast milk and the many benefits that go along with it.

Weaning From Breastfeeding

Whether you breastfeed for three months, six months, a year, or longer, you'll eventually have to wean your baby from the breast. Weaning is a process, and it may go smoothly, or it may be a tough time for both you and your baby. Weaning can also cause feelings of sadness or even depression in some women.

While some children may wean themselves, more often it's mom who has to or wants to begin weaning. If it's possible, weaning slowly may be helpful. Gradual weaning can make the whole experience much easier for you, your baby, and your body.

Resources for Breastfeeding Mothers

Breastfeeding is natural, but it isn't always easy. You may have questions while you're deciding whether or not breastfeeding is right for you, or you may find you need help weeks or months into breastfeeding. Thankfully, there are plenty of resources available to assist you as you prepare to breastfeed and as you go along in your breastfeeding journey. Your doctor, your baby's doctor, a lactation consultant, or a local breastfeeding group are great places to start when you need some help. 

A Word From Verywell

Breastfeeding is a personal decision. It may be an easy choice or something that you're struggling with. And while it's natural, it's not always without its struggles. So, whether you're just starting to research your options or you've been breastfeeding for quite a while, we know that having reliable information can make all the difference. The more you learn about breastfeeding, combination feeding, and weaning, the more prepared you will be to make the best decisions for you, your baby, and your family.   

Sources:

Eidelman, A. I., Schanler, R. J., Johnston, M., Landers, S., Noble, L., Szucs, K., & Viehmann, L. Policy Statement. Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. Section on Breastfeeding. 2012. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827-e841.

Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Eighth Edition. Elsevier Health Sciences. 2015.

Protocol AB. ABM Clinical Protocol# 7: Model breastfeeding policy (revision 2010). Breastfeeding Medicine. 5 (4). 2010.

Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.

World Health Organization. Breastfeeding: http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/

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