Breast milk is a common food for infants. While breastfeeding rates are rising, many lactating parents supplement breast milk with pumping and/or formula.
Breastfeeding, or chestfeeding, has numerous benefits for both lactating parent and child. Breast milk contains antibodies that can protect infants from illnesses. It can also reduce the lactating parent’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
However, breastfeeding does not work for everyone. Formula is a safe and nutritionally complete alternative.
Breast milk’s many benefits mean that any breast milk at all — whether nursed or pumped — is almost always beneficial for an infant.
Read more to learn about the benefits of breastfeeding, solutions to common problems, the best feeding positions, and more.
- In the United States,
83.9%of infants get some breast milk.
- About half (
56.7%) of infants in the U.S. are still breastfeeding at 6 months.
- Some infants (
19.4%) in the United States who are breastfeeding get formula supplements in the first days of life. Breastfeeding worksby supply and demand, so nursing more often increases a person’s milk supply. Colostrumis early breast milk produced immediately after giving birth. It is produced in small quantities, but it is rich in antibodies and other important cells. A few days after giving birth, a person’s body will begin to produce mature milk in greater volumes.
For new parents, it can be challenging to find a comfortable nursing position. Experimenting with different ones can help them find the best position for themselves and their infant(s).
No matter what position they choose, ensure the baby is tummy-to-tummy with the parent — not rolled away from them with the head turned toward the breast. The infant should be able to move their head, neck, and lips freely. Resist the temptation to press on the back of the baby’s head to help them latch.
Some popular positions to try include:
A comfortable option in the newborn weeks, this position involves holding the baby’s body in the same hand as the breast the baby nurses on.
Cradle the baby with their body facing the parent, and offer additional support with the free hand. This hand can also help the baby latch or adjust the latch.
This is a good position for when the parent needs to rest, as it involves both parent and baby lying on their sides facing each other. The parent may need to adjust their position to get the most comfortable latch.
This position can be beneficial for parents who have a large milk supply or a strong milk let-down.
Similar to the cradle position, this involves the parent sitting upright and cradling the baby. The parent uses the hand opposite the breast the baby is nursing on to hold the baby, making it easier to adjust the baby’s head position.
A good option for older babies with good head control, this position has both parties sitting. The baby sits in the parent’s lap, facing the parent, and nurses in an upright position, often with the legs straddling the nursing parent.
This is a good position for skin to skin and allows the baby to lie on the nursing parent. The nursing parent lies back, and the pair goes tummy to tummy. Both hands are free so that the nursing parent can support the baby’s head and change their position.
Breastfeeding can benefit both the lactating parent and the infant. It can also be affordable and accessible for most people who are able to nurse. Some of these benefits
- Convenience: Parents who nurse their children do not have to pack bottles or formula.
- Affordability: Breastfeeding is free, although a pump and bottles can increase the cost.
- Safety: Breast milk is always clean, safe, and exactly the right temperature. Formula is safe. However, a parent must mix it with clean water. In some areas, it can be difficult to access safe drinking water.
When a parent is breastfeeding, their body
An infant’s saliva provides information about their overall health, causing the parent’s body to change the milk. This means that a parent’s breast milk always has exactly what their baby needs, even as the needs change over the course of hours, days, weeks, and even years.
The metabolites (small molecules) in breast milk can influence an infant’s digestive system, immune system, and more. It may also benefit them by
For premature or otherwise medically vulnerable infants, breast milk is particularly important. Preterm infants who receive breast milk have higher survival rates, lower necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) rates, and shorter stays in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Breastfeeding may also support the lactating parent’s health, offering benefits
- a natural form of contraception, as full-time breastfeeding can delay the return of menstruation
- a lower risk risk of breast and ovarian cancer
- a lower risk of type 2 diabetes
When hungry, most babies will open their mouths, stick out their tongues, and show signs of “rooting.” These natural reflexes communicate that a baby is ready to eat. When hungry, babies will instinctively search for a nipple to latch onto.
However, latching can be difficult, and it is the hardest part of breastfeeding for many parents. A person can try these techniques for a baby who is reluctant to latch or who does not open their mouth:
- Start by making sure the lactating parent is comfortable.
- Position baby tummy to tummy. Make sure they can move their head freely. Support them with a hand at the base of their skull, not on the back of the head.
- Position baby so the nipple is pointing toward their nose. Baby’s head can be tilted back a little bit with their chin against the breast.
- Tickle the baby’s lip with the nipple until they open their mouth.
- When baby’s mouth is WIDE open, gently pull the baby’s body close. The nipple should point slightly up and reach the back of baby’s mouth. For the parent’s comfort, the baby should be moved to meet the nipple rather than moving the nipple to meet the baby.
- When latched correctly, the baby will have the full areola in their mouth, not just the nipple. The baby’s lips should flip outward. If they do not, a person should try gently flipping them outward.
If the latch is painful, the parent may want to contact a lactation consultant, midwife, or doctor.
Breastfeeding can be tricky. If an individual is experiencing persistent problems they cannot resolve, it may help to contact a doctor, midwife, or lactation consultant.
Some common breastfeeding challenges
- latch difficulties, especially if the baby has an anatomic anomaly such as a tongue tie
- pain when nursing
- matitis, an inflammation of the breast tissue caused by a blocked duct or infection
- returning to work and not having enough time to pump
- inadequate support from friends or family
- exhaustion from frequent nursing, especially overnight
- a low milk supply
- inadequate support or nursing knowledge
The proper environmental and healthcare support can overcome many of these issues. People who struggle with breastfeeding should know that nursing can be difficult, especially in an unsupportive environment.
Individuals who stop nursing often do so because of factors beyond their control, such as returning to work too early or pressure from family.
Some strategies to promote breastfeeding
- Spending time with the baby immediately after birth, if possible. When a baby has skin to skin contact and latches on to nurse within the first hour after birth, it makes a big difference in long-term milk supply and lactation success.
- Nursing frequently and on demand — milk supply increases when the baby frequently empties the breasts.
- Having frequent skin-to-skin contact with the baby, which can promote bonding and help milk supply.
- Seeking breastfeeding support early if there are problems. It is best to have the number of a lactation consultant before giving birth.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that, if possible, parents exclusively breastfeed for 6 months. After that, they can introduce solid foods while continuing breastfeeding until the infant is 1 year old.
After that, they can continue to breastfeed as long as it benefits both parent and baby. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends continued breastfeeding until a child is at least
Some parents may find it easier to switch to a combination of breastfeeding, pumped breast milk, and formula as they return to work and other responsibilities. Some babies will wean themselves of breast milk gradually as they become more interested in other foods.
Some research suggests that children allowed to nurse as much as they want won’t self-wean until around age 3.
There are plenty of misconceptions surrounding what breastfeeding parents should — and should not — eat while nursing.
Foods to avoid
Instead, parents should focus on how certain foods affect themselves and their baby.
Some babies have food sensitivities, and removing these foods from the diet may help. If they notice the infant experiences fussiness or gas after eating certain foods, they may want to experiment with avoiding those foods.
Although parents may want to try an elimination diet, they should always consult a healthcare professional or registered dietitian before doing so.
One food group they may want to eat in moderation is seafood. According to the
Foods to include
According to the CDC, breastfeeding parents need about
Many parents may also find it helpful to take a prenatal vitamin while breastfeeding. Most prenatals provide additional iodine and choline, which lactating parents need more of.
Vegetarians and vegans may also need to supplement for B12, which can be lacking in plant-based diets.
Breastfeeding and alcohol
Nursing parents do not need to “pump and dump” or fully abstain from alcohol. While alcohol does enter the bloodstream and breast milk, it does so at much lower levels than is present in alcoholic drinks.
While breastfeeding offers many benefits, it does not work for everyone. Both pumping and formula are good alternatives that can be more comfortable, convenient, and healthier for some individuals.
Formula offers complete nutrition, and it also allows other caregivers to feed an infant safely. Parents can use formula to supplement breast milk, or they can exclusively formula feed. While formula is nutritionally adequate, it does not provide the individualized nutrition or the immune protection that breast milk does.
Parents who cannot nurse but want their children to have breast milk can pump their milk and feed with a bottle. This option also allows caregivers to feed the infant, and it can be helpful for busy and working parents. Some parents find it beneficial to pump in advance and freeze bags of breast milk for later use.
Breast milk donation is also an option, especially for children with complex medical needs, such as premature infants.
Parents can ask about donor milk from a hospital or milk bank that screens the milk. Donor breast milk offers similar benefits to a parent’s breast milk, and it may also reduce the risk of certain serious medical conditions, such as necrotizing enterocolitis.
People who need help with breastfeeding should consider the following:
- Contact a lactation consultant, who may have more training in human lactation than a family doctor.
- Visit a local La Leche League meeting, where a parent can see other people breastfeeding and get advice.
- Talk with a doctor or midwife about painful breastfeeding.
- Consult a pediatrician if an infant is not gaining weight or seems to experience pain when nursing.
- Ask for help from friends and family. A partner, for example, can cook for the nursing parent, change diapers, and clean the house. This gives the nursing parent adequate time to nurse and ensures parents’ roles are more equitably balanced.
Breastfeeding is an excellent option for supporting a baby’s health and development, and it offers benefits for both the infant and lactating parent.
Despite this, many families experience societal and cultural barriers to breastfeeding or are unable to get support for common breastfeeding issues. This can make breastfeeding challenging.
Parents struggling with breastfeeding can try useful tips to find a better nursing position, help the baby latch, and prevent problems such as mastitis.
Feeding a combination of breast milk and formula can be a good alternative to exclusive breastfeeding. For families who are unable to breastfeed, formula is a safe and nutritionally adequate alternative.