August is National Breastfeeding Month in the U.S., and now is a great time to explore the many benefits of offering breast milk to your baby for a year and beyond. Whether you’re breastfeeding, exclusively pumping, or combo-feeding (that means offering both breast milk and formula), you’re doing something wonderful for your new little one. Bonus: breastfeeding has some significant health benefits for you, too, Mom!
I’ll also talk a little bit about using commercial baby formula, which is also a safe and nutritious food source for your little one. Expectant mothers and postpartum women are under enormous pressure and can feel ashamed when things don’t go as planned. It’s important that you go into this knowing that there are many ways to be a good mother. Ultimately, only you can decide what is best for you and your baby.
- The Benefits of Breastfeeding
- So, What’s Best for Babies (and YOU) Anyway?
- Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby: Everyone’s Different
The Benefits of Breastfeeding
Let’s start by discussing the advantages of breastfeeding for you and your baby. Here are some of the best reasons to offer your baby breast milk, whether it’s pumped or straight from the tap.
- Breast milk is highly nutritious and contains everything (or nearly everything) your baby needs to grow and develop.** It’s designed by nature to contain all the nutrients your baby needs, and it is easy to digest. It even changes as your baby grows so that it meets his or her needs at every stage. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of your baby’s life, continuing to a year or more as solids are introduced.
- Breastfeeding can help protect your baby against viruses and bacteria. When you breastfeed your baby, you pass on your antibodies, providing some immunity to certain pathogens. In fact, if you’ve received a full dose of one of the COVID-19 vaccines, you can share those antibodies with your baby through your milk. (Check out more important information about COVID-19 and pregnancy.)
- Breastfeeding can be cheaper and more convenient for you and your baby, since you don’t have to purchase, store, or prepare formula. Many mothers particularly prefer breastfeeding for middle-of-the-night and on-the-go feeds, since little preparation is involved. Additionally, your medical insurance may cover the cost of a breast pump.
- Breastfeeding can help reduce your risk of breast cancer and other serious illnesses, like type 2 diabetes. It can also help you lose any excess weight gained during pregnancy, especially in conjunction with regular postpartum exercise.
- Breastfeeding can trigger the release of hormones that help you bond with your baby. These hormones can also help your uterus shrink to its pre-pregnancy size more quickly and reduce your postpartum bleeding. All of that may help you regain a sense of normalcy more quickly (which cannot be undervalued when you’ve just brought a whole new person into the world!).
** Most breastfed infants will need to supplement their diet with prescription vitamin D drops for healthy bone development. Commercial baby formula contains vitamin D, so babies who are exclusively formula-fed usually don’t need to use a supplement. It’s always best to discuss your child’s nutritional needs with your pediatrician.
So, What’s Best for Babies (and YOU) Anyway?
As you can see, breastfeeding is an amazing way for mothers to feed their babies, so if it’s something you want to do, you should! While some moms and babies find it easy and get the hang of it right away, others require more support. When you’re pregnant, ask your OB/GYN if there’s a lactation consultant (LC) endorsed by the practice. Most hospitals have LCs on staff, and your pediatrician’s office may recommend one, too.
That said, while breastfeeding is wonderful, it’s not for everyone. Mothers may choose to exclusively pump, combo feed, or exclusively formula feed for myriad reasons. For example, if you need to take medication that’s contraindicated in breastfeeding mothers, using formula exclusively may be the best choice for you. Similarly, if you feel that trying to breastfeed is contributing to feelings of postpartum depression or anxiety, you should not feel guilty for taking care of your mental health. Yes, breast milk is absolutely awesome for your little one, but commercial formula is an excellent source of nutrition, too. (The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend trying to make your own baby formula, as your baby can become seriously ill.)
If you’re struggling with breastfeeding (hey, it’s not always easy!) or if you need advice about the best way to feed your baby, check out the Fed is Best Foundation. Led by a physician and nurse-LC, this nonprofit organization aims to support safe infant feeding, whether it’s by breast or by bottle. You can speak to experts about how to reach your breastfeeding goals and join a discussion group with other new moms for tips and support. The guidance is strictly evidence-based, and there is zero shaming of your feelings, needs, and choices.
Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby: Everyone’s Different
Ultimately, infant feeding is an intimate and personal choice, and only you can decide what’s right for your baby and you. Breastfeeding is an excellent way to feed your baby, and you deserve all the encouragement and support you need to reach your goals. If you’re struggling, anxious that your baby is underfed, or concerned about your baby’s weight gain, please reach out to your pediatrician or lactation consultant. It’s likely that a professional can help resolve the issues you’re having, like an uncomfortable latch, so that you can continue your breastfeeding relationship.
If breastfeeding doesn’t work out for your baby and you, please don’t beat yourself up. The infant formulas available in your supermarket have been especially designed to give babies as many of the benefits of breast milk as possible. Several years ago, manufacturers even began to include probiotics in formulas to promote a healthy gut, just as breast milk does. And yes, you will bond with your baby while bottle-feeding, snuggling, and making lots of eye contact.
Have a happy and healthy Breastfeeding Month, and enjoy your baby! You’re doing an amazing job!