Also known as nursing, the practice of providing an infant or toddler with nutrition from mother's milk via direct sucking on the breast.
Breastfeeding has nutritional, immunological, and developmental benefits for the child, as well as physiological and emotional benefits for the mother. Breast milk is a unique combination of fats, sugars, minerals, proteins, vitamins, and enzymes that lowers an infant's risk of infections, including diarrheal and urinary tract infections and pneumonia. It has been shown to lower infant susceptibility to atopic diseases, diabetes, the herpes simplex virus, lymphomas, Crohn's disease, and gastrointestinal problems. Breastfed babies have higher IQs than their bottle-fed counterparts. Women who
Percent of mothers who
continue breastfeeding for 6 months or longer
Source: Baby Milk Action, Cambridge, England; Center for Breastfeeding Information, Schaumburg, Illinois, as quoted in Parenting (April 1997).
breastfeed recover from childbirth more quickly, return to pre-pregnancy weight sooner, and are better able to space their natural born children due to the suppression of ovulation during lactation. The act of breastfeeding is relaxing for the mother since the hormone prolactin, which is a relaxant, is released when the infant nurses. Women who breastfeed are also less likely to develop pre-menopausal breast cancer.
In the United States, very few mothers breastfed their babies from the 1950s to the early 1970s. During the 1970s the natural health movement caused an increase in the number of mothers who breastfed, from 20% in 1970 to 62% in 1982. That figure declined until the early 1990s, when only about half of U.S. mothers breastfed their babies, and only 20% were breastfeeding after six months. Since the late 1980s, both the World Health Organization and UNICEF have been recommending breastfeeding for at least two years. As seen in the accompanying table, this contrasts significantly with practices in European countries.
Currently, all major U.S. organizations promoting children's health agree that breastfeeding provides the best nourishment for the infant. In 1992 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement recommending breastfeeding infants through the first year. During the mid-1990s the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services was working to increase post-partum breastfeeding to 75% and breastfeeding after six months to 50%. To help promote breastfeeding, some states, including California and Florida, have passed laws allowing breastfeeding in public.
The primary deterrents to breastfeeding are infant formula promotion by the media and through hospital samples, and physician, health care provider, and patient misinformation about the benefits of breastfeeding. A national survey found that 25% of physicians did not know the superior nutritive value of breast milk, and 33% were unaware of the immunological benefits of breastfeeding. In individual cases, a new mother's reluctance to breastfeed may derive from the fact that she may not have been taught to breastfeed by her own mother, who had children in an era when breastfeeding was unpopular. While it is a natural practice, breastfeeding is not an instinctive skill, and both mother and infant need to learn how to nurse properly. If breastfeeding is unsuccessful, the baby becomes frustrated and the mother anxious, which worsens the condition. Many mothers give up, thinking they have insufficient milk, a condition that is extremely rare. Most breastfeeding problems involve the frequency and/or efficiency of feedings. A professional lactation consultant can provide advice for mothers who are planning to breastfeed or who are having problems with breastfeeding.