To give an infant the best start in life, breastfeeding is the natural choice. It is the ideal food for new babies, and it has some other important benefits including establishment of healthy attachment between a mother and her child.
In Australia, it’s recommended that infants be breastfed exclusively for around the first six months of life and, if possible, breastfeeding should be continued as solid foods are introduced over the next six months.
Australian data indicates that many mothers initiate breastfeeding but do not persevere, emphasising the necessity for greater support to allow mothers to extend the duration of their breastfeeding.
Many new mums expect breastfeeding to be easy or to come naturally, but it’s not always the case. Sometimes it takes a little practice and perseverance, and parents should receive appropriate education regarding perception of milk supply and subsequent support to maximise their chance of successful breastfeeding.
The Australian Medical Association states general practitioners, lactation consultants, and community or maternal and child health nurses, are uniquely placed to provide appropriate reassurances and, where necessary, support to access specialist care. There are also some great resources and organisations listed below.
Breast milk is the best possible first food for a baby. It’s nutritionally complete, containing everything babies need to help them grow and develop during the first four to six months of life. Breastfeeding offers other health benefits too.
That’s why the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends exclusive breastfeeding until around six months of age. It also recommends that breastfeeding continues during the introduction of solid foods, up to around 12 months of age or for as long as the mother and baby pair desires.
Human breast milk contains complex nutrients, like many complex prebiotics called human milk oligosaccharides and an array of probiotics, along with digestive enzymes, hormones, biologically active components and other factors. These can help an infant settle and help their immune system develop. Research shows breastfeeding can also improve cognitive development, reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, infection, cardiovascular disease and asthma in infants. The maternal benefits of breastfeeding include decreased risk of breast cancer, decreased risk of ovarian cancer and osteoporosis.
The complex nature of breast milk is underscored by the fact that its nutrient composition is constantly changing over the period of lactation, and sometimes even within a single feed! This helps to ensure that a baby gets the right nutrients at the right time.
While breastfeeding is the best choice for babies, it’s important to recognise that sometimes it’s not possible. In these cases, it’s vital that a good quality infant formula is used to supplement or, in some cases, replace breastfeeding as a source of infant nutrition. The Australian Medical Association (2017) Infant Feeding and Parental Health Position Statement states parents seeking to bottle feed their infants should receive appropriate support and guidance around formula feeding, including: volume, frequency of feeds, feeding cues and sterilisation and preparation of formula.
Mothers wanting to breastfeed, but whom are unable, may feel a sense of guilt or failure for adopting formula feeding. Treating medical practitioners are well placed to provide appropriate reassurances about the efficacy of formula feeding and to help alleviate any stigma associated with infant formula.
Many women find the intimacy of breastfeeding important for bonding with their baby. The regular, close interaction and skin-to-skin contact may also have a positive influence on emotional and developmental outcomes. It provides comfort and warmth while stimulating a baby’s senses of touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste.
One of the other nice things about breastfeeding is that it can help mums return to their pre-pregnancy weight more quickly. Breastfeeding naturally uses up some of the fat stores accumulated during pregnancy and it also helps the uterus contract back to a normal size.
Research shows that the gradual weight loss observed during breastfeeding is slow and safe, and that mums who breastfeed are more likely to keep the weight off.
Another benefit of breastfeeding is the delay in the return of the menstrual cycle, which helps preserve maternal iron stores and improve iron status.
Breastfeeding is also very convenient and inexpensive! Breast milk is easy to transport, it’s always at the right temperature and it’s safe to consume anywhere, anytime and without the need to sterilise bottles.
For more information on nutrition and feeding options for babies, see below:
One of the main things mothers worry about is whether they’re producing enough milk to feed their baby, especially in the first six weeks when it’s hard to know what to expect. This concern results in some mums reducing how often or how long they breastfeed, and it is the most common reason given for giving up breastfeeding.
In reality, it’s very rare for a mother not to be able to produce enough breast milk for her baby. Most mums can make more than enough milk, and some even have too much. According to the NHMRC, a baby is most likely getting enough breast milk if they’re:
Breastfeeding is a learned skill. While it’s generally seen as being natural and instinctual, a mother and baby will need to learn the proper technique.
It’s perfectly normal to experience difficulties when first starting. It can take time and patience to figure out the technique, and sometimes some education and support are also needed. But with a bit of persistence, there’s a good chance a mother and her baby can enjoy the benefits of breastfeeding.
Parents seeking information can be overwhelmed with conflicting and often misleading advice from social media, family and friends, and the internet. An increasingly important aspect of antenatal education involves improving the health literacy of parents to help find evidence-based information from reliable sources.
Medical practitioners and other health professionals are an appropriate source of reassurance and support through this period. Antenatal education is an effective means of improving knowledge, and plays an important role in ensuring that new mothers have realistic expectations about feeding their child.