Breastfeeding is when a mother gives her baby breast milk to meet her child's nutritional needs for healthy growth and development.
Your body will begin to prepare for breastfeeding during your pregnancy. Your breasts will grow in size as the milk ducts and milk-producing cells develop.
After giving birth, your baby suckling on your breast will stimulate the release of hormones called prolactin and oxytocin into your bloodstream. Prolactin causes milk to be produced, and oxytocin causes your breasts to secrete the milk (which is called 'let-down').
You can breastfeed whatever the size and shape of your breasts and nipples. If your nipples are flat or inverted, you can still breastfeed. Your midwife or health visitor will give you the help you need.
It's ideal to have close (skin-to-skin) contact with your baby early on after delivery. There are various opinions on when it's best to start breastfeeding. The World Health Organization recommends that you should try to breastfeed within an hour of giving birth. You’re more likely to be successful with breastfeeding if you begin immediately after delivery, when your oxytocin levels are high.
However, The Royal College of Midwives doesn't believe there is a critical period for starting to breastfeed. They advise that the pace and timing of the first feed should be left to mothers and their babies. Your baby will naturally root for your nipple and start to suckle when he or she is ready.
During the first few days of breastfeeding, your breasts will produce colostrum, a thick yellow fluid that's rich in antibodies. This will help to protect your baby against illness. After two to four days your breasts will produce larger amounts of milk.
Find a comfortable position where your arms and back and your baby's head are supported. It's important that your baby latches on to your breast correctly. If your baby just takes your nipple in his or her mouth, this can give you sore nipples and may mean your baby is not taking in much milk.
Your midwife or health visitor can explain how to check your baby is feeding the right way.
Newborn babies need to feed little and often. The World Health Organization recommends that you feed 'on demand' – as often as your baby wants to.
The World Health Organization recommends unrestricted feeding, so your baby should feed for as long as he or she wants to. As a rough guide, each feed may be 10 to 20 minutes per breast, but every baby is different so it may be shorter or longer.
Your baby may feed for longer than half an hour, or want to feed more often than every one to one and half hours. This could be because he or she is not attaching properly to the breast. A midwife or health visitor can advise you on this.
Breast milk contains all the nutrients your baby needs for the first six months. After this time, you can gradually begin to introduce solid food whilst continuing to breastfeed or introduce bottle-feeds. You can supplement solid food with breast milk for as long as you want to. When you stop breastfeeding is a personal decision.
The World Health Organization recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively for the first six months of their life and that breastfeeding should continue, along with solid foods, for up to two years of age. Any length of time will benefit your baby – the longer you breastfeed, the greater the benefit.
It’s up to you whether you breastfeed your baby or not. However, breastfeeding can be good for you and your baby.
There are a number of advantages for you including:
Breastfeeding can be a contraceptive as it stops ovulation, as long as you’re fully breastfeeding, your baby is under six months and you haven’t had a period. However, you cannot be sure exactly when your fertility will return. You need to start using another form of contraception before your periods restart.
There are also a number of advantages for your baby including those listed below.
There are certain things you may want to consider when deciding on breastfeeding.
Certain medical problems can make breastfeeding risky for your baby. For example, if you have HIV, there is a possibility that you could pass this on to your baby through breastfeeding. Therefore, it's safer to avoid breastfeeding if you are HIV positive. In parts of the world where there is less reliable access to safe drinking water for bottle-feeds, the advice may be different.
Breastfeeding may not be appropriate if you have other conditions or take certain medicines. Talk to your GP, obstetrician, midwife or health visitor if you think you may have a problem that could affect your decision to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding isn’t the only option for feeding your baby. You can bottle-feed your baby with infant formula, which is designed to be as close to breast milk as possible. It comes either as a powder that you make up with boiled water, or as a ready-made liquid formula.
Powdered infant formula isn't sterile so it’s important to follow the instructions on the pack and take care with sterilising and cleaning bottles to prevent your baby getting an infection.
Cow’s milk isn’t suitable for newborn babies as it doesn’t provide enough nutrition for babies and is difficult for them to digest.
Small amounts of whatever you eat or drink will be passed on to your baby through your breast milk. You don’t need to eat a special diet while breastfeeding, but it’s important to eat a healthy, balanced diet and drink enough fluids (such as water, milk and unsweetened fruit juices). It’s also recommended that all pregnant and breastfeeding women take a daily supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D.
If you have an alcoholic drink, small amounts will be passed on to your baby. The effect alcohol has on your baby depends on how much you drink. It can make your baby drowsy and cause problems with his or her digestion. It could also affect the amount of milk you produce. It’s best not to drink alcohol if you’re breastfeeding, but if you do want a drink, have no more than one to two units once or twice a week.
You can plan to minimise the impact of drinking alcohol. For example, if you know you're going to be drinking, consider expressing your breast milk in advance and don’t breastfeed for at least two to three hours after drinking.
If you smoke, your baby is at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, asthma, ear and chest infections.
Some nicotine will also be passed on to your baby through your breast milk. The best thing you can do for you and your baby is to stop smoking.
If you take medicines, small amounts may be passed on to your baby through your breast milk. Always check with your GP or pharmacist which medicines you can safely take while you’re breastfeeding. If you have to take a painkiller paracetamol is safe to take when breastfeeding.
Reviewed by Jane McQueen, Bupa Health Information Team, April 2014.
For answers to frequently asked questions about breastfeeding, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Publication date: January 2012