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decision pointShould I breast-feed my baby?

Consider the following when making your decision:

  • Breast-feeding is a personal choice. How you feed your baby is your decision. Your thoughts and feelings about it are an important part of the decision.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics and most doctors advise breast-feeding for 1 year or longer.
  • Breast milk is the perfect food for your baby. It has almost all the nutrients a baby needs for the first 6 months of life. Breast milk also helps prevent illness.
  • Babies can also get good nutrition from bottle-feeding with formula.
  • Breast-feeding helps a woman's body recover from the stresses of pregnancy, labor, and delivery.
  • Breast-feeding may lower your risks of breast cancer and diabetes later in life.

What is breast-feeding?

Breast-feeding is feeding a baby milk from a mother's breasts. You can feed your baby directly at your breast. You can also pump your breasts and put the milk in a bottle so that you or others can feed your baby breast milk. This lets you give your baby the benefits of breast milk even when you can't be there to feed your baby. Women who work or need to be away from their babies may have the option to both breast-feed and sometimes bottle-feed. Some women bottle-feed with pumped breast milk, or formula, or a combination of both.

Doctors advise breast-feeding for 1 year or longer. But your baby benefits from any amount of time that you breast-feed.

How do you feel about breast-feeding?

Only you know your own thoughts and feelings about breast-feeding. This is an important part of making this decision.

  • Do you want to breast-feed? With the right teaching and support, most women who want to breast-feed are able to do so. Talk to your doctor if you have had breast surgery or have been treated for breast cancer. Some surgeries can limit your ability to produce breast milk. Before your baby is born, plan ahead and learn all you can about breast-feeding. This helps make breast-feeding easier.
  • Do you know someone who can teach you about breast-feeding? Breast-feeding is a natural process, but it can take time and practice for both you and your baby to do it well. Doctors, nurses, and lactation specialists can all help. So can friends, family, and breast-feeding support groups.
  • Are you comfortable with breast-feeding? If you are modest or have other concerns about breast-feeding, a lactation specialist can help. For example, she can show you how to breast-feed in public without showing your breast.
  • Is anyone else trying to convince you one way or the other? Do what is right for you and your baby, and don't let others make this decision for you.
  • How does your work or school situation affect your decision? Many women are able to provide breast milk even when they are away from their baby. You can get a breast pump and learn to pump your breasts. But it is important to think about the practical issues ahead of time, such as finding a place to pump your breast milk, and where to store it.
  • Is the cost of formula a concern? Formula can be expensive, and breast milk is free. You may save money if you breast-feed your baby.

What are the health benefits of breast-feeding?

Breast milk is the perfect food for your baby. It is the only food your baby needs until about 4 to 6 months of age. You do not need to give your baby other food, water, or juice, except for vitamin D each day.

Breast-feeding lowers your child's risk for some illnesses and diseases. These include:

  • Diarrhea and upset stomach. Breast-fed babies have fewer bouts of diarrhea than babies who are not breast-fed.
  • Ear infections.
  • Urinary tract infections.
  • Illnesses that affect the respiratory tract or breathing.
  • Less chance of needing hospitalization because of infection in the first year of life.1

Breast-feeding may also protect against other health problems later on, such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, eczema, and high blood pressure.2, 3, 4, 5

You may recover from pregnancy, labor, and delivery sooner when you breast-feed. For example, breast-feeding makes your body release a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone helps your uterus bleed less and return to its normal size after pregnancy. Breast-feeding may also lower your risks for breast cancer and diabetes later on in life.6, 7

Are there risks from not breast-feeding?

Feeding a baby formula does not usually cause any health problems. Formula provides good nutrition for babies. But it does not give your baby the extra protection against infection that breast milk does.

If you both breast- and bottle-feed your baby from birth, your baby may have problems switching between sucking from your breast and the bottle. This is called nipple confusion. You may be able to avoid this problem if you feed your baby only from the breast for the first few weeks of life before you give your baby a bottle.

Are there risks from breast-feeding?

Almost all mothers of newborns are able to breast-feed safely. But talk to your doctor about risks to your baby if:

  • You have a long-term or infectious disease. For example, you should not breast-feed if you have active tuberculosis, are HIV-positive, or have cancer that is being treated with chemotherapy. Women who have conditions such as cystic fibrosis need to be monitored while breast-feeding.
  • You use drugs, abuse alcohol, or smoke. Anything you put in your body may be passed to your baby in breast milk.
  • You take medicine. Your doctor can tell you if the medicine you take will affect your breast milk.

If you breast-feed, do not eat fish that may contain mercury. It can be harmful when it is passed to your baby through your breast milk.

A small number of women who breast-feed can get a breast infection called mastitis. It causes fever and breast pain. If you have mastitis, your doctor will give you antibiotics and have you continue to breast-feed.

If you need more information, see the topic Breast-Feeding.

Your choices are:

  • Breast-feed. (Or, breast-feed and sometimes bottle-feed with breast milk or formula.)
  • Bottle-feed with formula.

The decision about whether to breast-feed takes into account your personal feelings and the medical facts.

Deciding whether to breast-feed
Reasons to breast-feed Reasons not to breast-feed
  • Doctors recommend breast-feeding for the first year or longer.
  • You want to breast-feed.
  • Breast milk is the perfect food for your baby. It is the only food your baby needs until about 4 to 6 months of age, except for vitamin D each day.
  • Breast-feeding has health benefits for your baby. For example, it helps to prevent certain illnesses and hospitalizations for serious infection.
  • Breast-feeding may help you recover from pregnancy, labor, and delivery sooner than if you bottle-feed with formula.
  • Breast-feeding may lower your risk of later breast cancer or diabetes.
  • Breast-feeding your baby costs less than bottle-feeding with formula.

Are there other reasons you might want to breast-feed?

  • You have a health problem or take medicine that would harm your baby if you breast-fed.
  • You don't want to breast-feed.
  • You tried breast-feeding, and it isn't right for you.
  • You are not able to pump your breast milk when you are away from your baby.
  • You have a work schedule or other demands that offer no flexibility for breast-feeding or pumping.

Are there other reasons you might not want to breast-feed?

These personal stories may help you make your decision.

Use this worksheet to help you make your decision. After completing it, you should have a better idea of how you feel about breast-feeding. Discuss the worksheet with your doctor.

Circle the answer that best applies to you.

I want to follow the advice of experts, who recommend breast-feeding for 1 year as the best food for my baby.

Yes No Unsure

I want to breast-feed.

Yes No Unsure

I will need support to plan how to pump and store my breast milk when I need to be away from my baby.

Yes No Unsure

I prefer to bottle-feed my baby with formula.

Yes No Unsure

Formula is too expensive for my budget.

Yes No Unsure

I have support from family and friends who can teach me about breast-feeding.

Yes No Unsure

Use the following space to list any other important concerns you have about this decision.

 

 

 

 

 

What is your overall impression?

Your answers in the above worksheet are meant to give you a general idea of where you stand on this decision. You may have one overriding reason to breast-feed or not to breast-feed.

Check the box below that represents your overall impression about your decision.

Leaning toward breast-feeding

 

Leaning toward NOT breast-feeding

         
  • Breast-Feeding
  • Labor, Delivery, and Postpartum Period

Citations

  1. Talayero JMP, et al. (2006). Full breastfeeding and hospitalization as a result of infections in the first year of life. Pediatrics, 118(1): 92–99.

  2. Dell S, To T (2001). Breastfeeding and asthma in young children. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 155(11): 1261–1265.

  3. Owen CG, et al. (2006). Does breastfeeding influence the risk of type 2 diabetes in later life? A quantitative analysis of published evidence. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 84: 1043–1054.

  4. Martin RM, et al. (2004). Does breast-feeding in infancy lower blood pressure in childhood? The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). Circulation, 109(10): 1259–1266.

  5. Martin RM, et al. (2005). Breastfeeding in infancy and blood pressure in later life: Systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology, 161(1): 15–26.

  6. Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer (2002). Breast cancer and breastfeeding: Collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries, including 50,302 women with breast cancer and 96,973 women without the disease. Lancet, 360(9328): 187–195.

  7. Stuebe AM, et al. (2005). Duration of lactation and incidence of type 2 diabetes. JAMA, 294(20): 2601–2610.

Author Sandy Jocoy, RN
Editor Kathleen M. Ariss, MS
Associate Editor Terrina Vail
Primary Medical Reviewer Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Deborah A. Penava, BA, MD, FRCSC, MPH - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Last Updated May 4, 2009

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: May 04, 2009
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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