Breastfeeding is best

Breast milk is the best food for your baby during the first year of life. It helps him grow healthy and strong. It also can protect him from many illnesses.

Breastfeeding is good for you, too. For example, it can help you get back to your pre-pregnancy weight (your weight before you were pregnant). And it can help you bond with your baby.

How is breastfeeding good for your baby?

Here’s why breast milk is best for your baby:

  • Breast milk has hormones and the right amount of protein, sugar, fat and most vitamins to help your baby grow and develop.
  • Breast milk has antibodies that help protect your baby from many illnesses. Antibodies are cells in the body that fight off infection.
  • Breast milk has fatty acids, like DHA (docosahexanoic acid), that may help your baby’s brain and eyes develop. It may lower the chances of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is the unexplained death of a baby during sleep.
  • Breast milk is easy to digest. A breastfed baby may have less gas and belly pain than a baby who is fed formula. Formula is a man-made product that you buy and feed your baby.
  • Breast milk changes as your baby grows so he gets exactly what he needs at the right time. For example, for the first few days after giving birth, your breasts make a thick, yellowish form of breast milk called colostrum. Colostrum has nutrients and antibodies that your baby needs in the first few days of life. It changes to breast milk in 3 to 4 days.
  • Breast milk is always ready when your baby wants to eat. Your body makes as much breast milk as your baby needs. The more you breastfeed, the more milk you make. And there’s no waiting for you to mix up formula or get a bottle ready.

Breastfed babies have fewer health problems than babies who are fed formula. Breastfed babies don’t have as many ear, lung or urinary tract infections as babies who are fed formula. Breastfed babies may be less likely to have asthma, certain cancers and diabetes (having too much sugar in your blood) later in life. They also may be less likely to be obese.

Does a breastfed baby need vitamin supplements?

Yes. Breast milk doesn’t have enough vitamin D for your baby. Vitamin D helps make bones and teeth strong and helps prevent a bone disease called rickets. Give your baby vitamin D drops starting in the first few days of life. Talk to your baby's provider about vitamin D drops for your baby.

If you’re a vegan, you need extra vitamin B12. A vegan is someone who doesn’t eat meat or anything made with animal products, like eggs or milk. If you’re a vegan, ask your provider about taking a B12 supplement to make sure you and your baby get the right amount.

Is breastfeeding good for babies with special needs?

Yes. But many premature babies or sick babies cannot feed from the breast right away. Giving your premature or sick baby breast milk can help her grow and protect her from illnesses.

If you have a premature baby, your breast milk is different than if you had a full-term baby. Your breast milk has what your premature baby needs at his stage of development.

If you have a baby with special needs, you may need extra help to make breastfeeding work. You may need to pump your breast milk to help build up your milk supply.

Is any amount of breastfeeding good?

Yes. It’s best to feed your baby only breast milk for at least 6 months. This means no water, formula, other liquids or solid food—just breast milk. But any amount of breastfeeding is good for your baby’s health and development. Even breastfeeding for a short time is good for your baby.

Is breastfeeding good for mom?

Yes. Breastfeeding your baby helps you because:

  • It increases the amount of a hormone in your body called oxytocin. This helps your uterus (womb) go back to the size it was before you got pregnant. It also helps stop bleeding that you have after giving birth.
  • It burns extra calories. This helps you get back to your pre-pregnancy weight more quickly.
  • It may help lower your risk for diabetes, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Breastfeeding also delays the return of your period. But that makes it hard to know when your body can get pregnant again. If you and your partner don’t want another baby right away, use birth control when you start having sex again.

How many women breastfeed?

About 3 out of 4 women (75 percent) in the United States breastfeed their babies. About 2 out of 5 women (about 40 percent) breastfeed their babies for at least 6 months.

Can all women breastfeed?

No. Some moms shouldn’t breastfeed for medical and other reasons. Learn more about when it’s not OK to breastfeed.

Last reviewed February 2012

See also: Breastfeeding, Breastfeeding and medications, prescription drugs, Breastfeeding help, Breastfeeding your baby in the NICU, Breastfeeding: What dad can do, Keeping breastfeeding safe, Using a breast pump, A visit with a breastfeeding support group

Most common questions

How much vitamin D should my baby get?

Vitamin D is important to help avoid a bone-weakening disease called rickets. All babies should receive 400 IU of vitamin D per day, starting in the first few days of life. This includes breastfed babies and babies who drink less than 1L of infant formula per day.

Our skin makes vitamin D when it gets sunlight. But too much sunlight can be harmful, too. In fact, babies 6 months and older and young kids should stay away from direct sunlight and wear sunscreen at all times when out in the sun. However, sunscreen stops the skin from making vitamin D. The best way to get enough vitamin D is by giving your baby liquid multivitamin drops with vitamin D. They can be found in many pharmacies, and you won't need a prescription for it. Just be sure you've filled the dropper to no more than 400 international units (IU).

How often should I nurse my baby?

All babies are different and have different feeding patterns. In general, breastfed newborns need to eat 8 to 12 times in 24 hours (about once every 2 to 3 hours), for about 30 minutes each time. Breast milk is easily digested so it may be difficult to time when you should nurse your baby.

Newborns may need to feed more frequently than older babies. They may need to be fed on demand. As your milk supply is established and the baby grows, the baby's feeding patterns may change and she may go longer between feedings. Remember, breastfeeding is a natural skill, but it’s also a learned skilled. Be patient and give yourself (and your baby) time to master this new ability.

What solids foods should I start my baby on?

Begin with a single-grain iron-fortified cereal such as rice, barley or oatmeal. Mix it with breast milk or infant formula. Start with a small amount once a day. It's hard to tell how much your baby will eat. At first, most of her food will probably end on her bib or face. Be patient and help your baby learn this new skill. It's important that meal time is a pleasant time. This will build the foundation of healthy eating habits. If your baby cries, shows no interest in feeding or turns her head away from the spoon, stop feeding her. She is trying to tell you that she's full or she doesn’t want anymore. You should never force her to eat more than what she wants.

When should I give my baby solid foods?

Breast milk is the best food for most babies. It's best to give only breast milk for the first 6 months of life. Some babies might be ready to start solid foods between 4 to 6 months of age. When your baby is between 4 to 6 months, she may begin to show signs that she's ready to try some solid foods alongside her breast milk or formula. Watch for her developmental cues (signs) and she'll let you know when she's ready. Some signs that show your baby might be ready to start solid foods are:

  • She can sit with support.
  • She shows a good head neck control when seated.
  • She shows a desire for food by opening her mouth, drooling and leaning forward.
  • She begins to chew and brings her hands to her mouth.
  • She begins to handle objects with the palm of her hand.
  • She swallows pureed food and the extrusion reflex starts to go away (tongue-thrust reflex).
©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).