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Breastfeeding: The Perfect Food for Babies

The ideal food for a newborn baby is mother's milk. Breast milk provides the nutrients essential for an infant's development in the first months of life. It is easily digested and provides enough fluids to keep your baby from feeling thirsty or becoming constipated.

Breastfeeding also protects against illness:

  • During the first few days of lactation, mothers produce colostrum, a yellowish precursor to breast milk that is rich in antibodies that protect newborns against infection.
  • When the breast milk comes in three or four days after birth, antibodies manufactured by the mother's immune system continue to pass to babies, helping them ward off infection for as long as they nurse.
  • Breastfed babies are less likely than formula-fed babies to develop digestive problems, ear infections, anemia, diabetes, and other health problems.

Breastfeeding even helps your baby's oral development. Breastfed babies have good cheekbone development, jaw alignment, and fewer speech impediments than bottle-fed babies. As a result, they are less likely to need braces or other orthodontic care later in life.

Breastfeeding: Benefits for Mothers

Breastfeeding is the easiest way to keep babies happy. Life is simple for most healthy breastfed newborns. They let you know when they're hungry, nurse eagerly until they are satisfied, then drift off to sleep with a look of contentment.

Breastfeeding makes life simpler for mothers. No measuring and mixing is necessary and, in most cases, you don't need to worry about how much breast milk your baby is consuming.

Breastfeeding has positive effects on the mother's body:

  • When a mother nurses her baby right after birth, it causes uterine contractions that reduce bleeding and allow the uterus to quickly regain its shape.
  • Because producing breast milk requires energy, breastfeeding mothers burn more calories, and, generally, return to their pre-pregnancy weight faster than bottle-feeding mothers.

Breastfeeding: What to Expect

During the first weeks, you may have some discomfort as your body adjusts. Sometimes this can be disconcerting to new mothers. Your breasts may feel engorged and sensitive. You will find it helpful to speak with an experienced breast-feeding coach, which you'll be able to find by contacting the La Leche League through the organization's website,

Sticking with breastfeeding through this brief period brings great rewards. Within two weeks or so, your body will "know" how much milk to produce, because of a remarkable physiological response of "supply and demand." The more your growing baby nurses, the more milk you'll produce.

After a few weeks, most mothers and babies settle into a relaxed routine. Mom will understand her infant's "language" (how baby shows when he or she is hungry, sleepy, or playful) and she will see that breastfeeding is tremendously comforting to her baby. Studies show that breastfeeding gives your infant a close bond with you and helps build feelings of safety and security in your child.

Infants sometimes want to nurse when they are tired or grumpy, but not particularly hungry. And even though babies will have emptied both breasts after 10 minutes or so of feeding, they will probably still want to nurse. Babies allowed to continue nursing until finished will feel nurtured and satisfied, as well as full.

Formula-fed babies and breastfed babies rushed through nursing may become fussy and suck frantically on their fists or blankets. You can take your cues from your baby. Some will turn away from the breast after a short time, while others seem to need long, comforting feedings.

Breastfeeding: How Much and How Often?

Signs that a baby is getting enough to eat include:

  • gaining weight every week
  • urinating six to eight times a day
  • sleeping well
  • being responsive to the mother

Most pediatricians believe that babies themselves are the best judges of how much to eat. Regular examinations by a pediatrician with monthly weight checks will reassure parents who are watching their baby's growth.

In general, it is best to feed infants when they demand it, rather than trying to set a rigid schedule. Since breast milk is so easily digested, babies may be ready to nurse again within a short time.

In general, babies want to nurse about every two hours. But each infant is different. One may be hungry an hour after the last meal, while another is content for three to four hours between feedings.

Breastfeeding: Human Milk Versus Animal Milk

Milk from cows and goats is quite different in composition than human breast milk and, therefore, should not be fed to human infants. Human milk, which is designed specifically for promoting infant health, is much lower in protein, calcium, and sodium, and higher in mono- and polyunsaturated fats, carbohydrates, folate, and vitamin C.

Comparing Human and Animal Milks (per cup)

Nutrient Human Milk Cow's Milk Goat's Milk
Calories 172 146 168
Protein (g) 2.5 7.9 8.7
Fat (g) 10.8 7.9 10.1
Saturated fat (g) 4.9 4.6 6.5
Monounsaturated fat (g) 4.1 2.0 2.7
Polyunsaturated fat (g) 1.2 0.5 0.4
Carbohydrate (g) 17.0 11.0 10.9
Folate (mcg) 12 12 2
Vitamin C (mg) 12.3 0 3.2
Sodium (mg) 42 98 122
Iron (mg) 0.07 0.07 0.12
Calcium (mg) 79 276 327

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2004. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page,

Breastfeeding: Complete Nutrition for Breastfed Babies

For the first six months of life, babies will get the nourishment they need from breast milk and a little regular sun exposure. Infants thrive on breast milk from their mothers. Breast milk is rich in the vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrate, and fat that an infant needs. When breastfeeding mothers consume a nutrient-rich diet, their breast milk is also full of nutrients.

Babies, like adults, need vitamin D, which normally comes from sunlight touching the skin rather than from food sources. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that all breastfed infants receive 200 IU of oral vitamin D drops daily beginning during the first two months of life and continuing until the daily consumption of vitamin D-fortified foods is sufficient. This recommendation is due to the risk of sunburn and skin cancer from sun exposure and the fact that breast milk does not contain enough vitamin D to prevent rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency.

In its Breastfeeding Guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that "exclusive breast feeding is ideal nutrition and sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first 6 months of life."

In special circumstances, however, some additional vitamins may be recommended:

  • In the United States, most babies are given a one-time dose of vitamin K at birth because vitamin K does not reach the fetus well and is low in breast milk. Deficiencies can cause hemorrhaging and death. Infants should not receive supplemental vitamin K after that time, as large doses of the synthetic version can be toxic.
  • As you begin introducing new foods to your baby at approximately six months, iron-fortified cereals are a good way to meet your baby's need for iron (1 milligram per kilogram of body weight per day).
  • If you are not regularly consuming vitamin B12 from fortified food products or supplements, your breast-feeding baby will not get adequate B12. It is important for you to adjust your eating habits to include vitamin B12-fortified foods or a supplement so both you and your nursing baby get the benefits of this essential nutrient.

Breastfed babies generally don't need to be given water, since there is enough fluid in breast milk to keep them well hydrated. However, during very hot weather or when they have a fever, babies can benefit from extra fluids and may readily accept a bottle of water.

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