The Breast Is Best

James N. Martin, Jr, MD

By James N. Martin, Jr, MD
President, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Breastfeeding is a natural, ages-old practice that holds numerous benefits for both baby and mother.

While it is not advisable for some women—such as those with certain infections and chronic illnesses—the vast majority of women are capable of breast-feeding and are encouraged to at least attempt it.


Breast milk provides complete nutrition, helping to build strong digestive and immune systems and may protect against respiratory infections, some child-hood cancers, and obesity. Breastfed babies often have less gas, constipation, and diarrhea, fewer feeding problems, and less illness than do formula-fed babies.

For nursing mothers, breastfeeding provides an inexpensive and convenient feeding option. Women who breastfeed may lose weight faster, experience less stress during the postpartum period, build stronger bonds with their babies, and have a decreased risk of breast cancer.

Before it’s time to deliver, notify your doctor and the health care team that delivers your baby of your breastfeeding plans. They will help you start and support your breastfeeding once the baby is born. Try to nurse within the first hour after delivery while your newborn is alert and ready to suck. After your baby gets the hang of breastfeeding, nurse on demand.

Use signs of hunger, such as when your baby nuzzles against your breast, makes sucking motions, or puts a hand in his or her mouth as a guide for when to feed your baby. Many newborns will nurse between eight and 12 times every 24 hours for about 10–15 minutes on each breast. Your doctor can explain how to tell if your baby is getting enough milk through diaper-changing patterns and weight gain after the first few days.

Breastfeeding women require about 500 more calories a day than they needed before becoming pregnant. Eat a well-balanced diet that includes at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium, and drink at least eight glasses of liquid a day. Try to identify and avoid foods that seem to cause a reaction in your baby. Rashes, fussiness, diarrhea, or congestion after nursing can signal a food allergy.

Exclusive breastfeeding can temporarily stop ovulation, making it less likely that you will get pregnant. However, if you are trying to avoid pregnancy, you still need to use birth control. Barrier methods, such as condoms and intra-uterine devices, will not affect your milk supply. If you decide to use hormonal contraception, your doctor can help you choose a progestin-only method. The estrogen in combination pills can diminish milk supply early on and should not be used until nursing is established.

Ob-gyns, pediatricians, nurses, and lactation specialists can be great breast-feeding resources. Be sure to consult with them about health questions and practical issues that may arise.

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