Breastfeeding, also called nursing, is the process of feeding human breast milk to an infant, either directly from the breast or by expressing (pumping out) the milk from the breast and bottle-feeding it to the infant. Milk from the breast provides an infant with essential calories, nutrients, and antibodies to protect against some infections.1
For women in the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently recommends1:
- Infants should be fed breast milk exclusively for the first 6 months after birth. Exclusive breastfeeding means that the infant does not receive any additional foods (except vitamin D) or fluids unless medically recommended.
- After the first 6 months and until the infant is 1 year old, the AAP recommends that the mother continue breastfeeding while gradually introducing solid foods into the infant's diet.
- After 1 year, breastfeeding can be continued if mutually desired by the mother and her infant.
According to the AAP, breastfeeding reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by more than one-third. Also, adolescent and adult obesity is reduced by up to nearly one-third in breastfed infants compared with those who are not breastfed.1 NICHD-supported research suggests that some of the fatty acids contained in breast milk play important roles in helping brain development.2
Breastfeeding is beneficial to the mother, too:
- Nursing helps a woman's body secrete hormones, causing her uterus to contract and heal. These hormones also postpone the restarting of menstruation.
- Breastfeeding reduces the chance of postpartum depression, enhances mother-infant bonding, and can create a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
- Some authorities believe that breastfeeding women have lower risks of developing breast and uterine cancers.
About 75% of mothers initiate breastfeeding for their newborn infants.1 Mothers who are interested in breastfeeding should discuss it with their health care providers both before the baby is born and while in the hospital.1 Visit the Breastfeeding: Resources and Publications section for organizations that can assist with breastfeeding.
In addition, the Breastfeeding health topic provides detailed information about breastfeeding and related issues. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers an online tool (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/pregnancy-breastfeeding.html) that can help women who are breastfeeding plan their meals to ensure that their nutrition is optimal using references to specific food groups.
When should solid foods be introduced?
The AAP recommends breastfeeding as the sole source of nutrition for infants for at least 6 months. As solid foods are added to the infant's diet, breastfeeding should continue until at least 12 months. Breastfeeding may go on after 12 months, if desired by the mother and infant.3
The AAP offers specific recommendations about the variety of foods that an infant's diet should include starting after about 6 months of age, though solids may be introduced a bit earlier.3 Also, the AAP recommends limiting fruit juices in infants' and children's diets.4 Special care needs to be used when selecting and preparing "finger foods" that infants can handle themselves. Such items could lead some infants to choke on them.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012). Policy statement: Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 129, e827–e841. Retrieved April 27, 2012, from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/3/e827.full.pdf+html
- Birch, E. E., Garfield, S., Hoffman, D. R., Uauy, R., & Birch, D. G. (2000). A randomized controlled trial of early dietary supply of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and mental development in term infants. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 42, 174–181.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012). Ages & stages: Switching to solid foods. Retrieved August 5, 2012, from http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/feeding-nutrition/Pages/Switching-To-Solid-Foods.aspx
- American Academy of Pediatrics. (2011). Where we stand: Fruit juices. Retrieved August 5, 2012, from http://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Where-We-Stand-Fruit-Juice.aspx