Breast milk can provide all the nutrients and protective factors your baby needs for healthy development right through the first six months of life. Ideally breastfeeding should continue until after six months alongside giving other food and drinks for as long as you and your baby want.
The importance of breastfeeding for babies
Breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed your baby and has many important long term health benefits for both mother and baby.
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Breastfeeding your baby is important because:
- breast milk is the natural first food for babies, designed to meet their needs
- breast milk changes as your baby grows, so your baby will get all the nutrients, growth factors and hormones needed for the best nutrition, development and health
- breast milk contains antibodies from you which help protect your baby from ear, chest, kidney and stomach infections
- breastfeeding helps to avoid constipation in your baby
- breastfed babies are less likely to get allergies like eczema
- breastfed babies are less likely to become obese in later childhood
- breastfed babies are less likely to be admitted to hospital with infections
- breastfed babies are less like to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (cot death)
Ill or pre-term infants especially benefit from the antibodies, hormones, enzymes and growth factors contained in breast milk.
Feeding premature babies breastmilk reduces the risk of a series bowel condition called Necrotising Enterocolitis.
If a mother is not able to express her own milk, the human milk bank can provide donor breast milk for premature and ill babies who need it. .
For further information on why breastfeeding is important visit the Breastfed babies site and ask your midwife for a copy of the PHA booklet 'Off to a Good Start'.
The importance of breastfeeding for mothers
Breastfeeding is important for mothers as well because:
- it can help to build a strong bond between you and your baby
- it lowers your risk of getting breast and ovarian cancer
- It lowers your risk of endometriosis
- it is free
- it naturally uses up to 500 calories a day
- there is no need to sterilise bottles, prepare feeds or keep your baby waiting
- you can do it anytime, anywhere
- it’s a lot easier than bottle-feeding, especially in the middle of the night
- your womb will return to normal size more quickly
Any amount of breastfeeding has positive effects for both child and mother. The longer you breastfeed your baby, the greater the effect on improving your child’s health.
The first few days
Every pregnant woman has milk ready for her baby at birth. The milk is called colostrum and is sometimes a yellow colour. It is very concentrated, so your baby only needs a small amount at each feed. Colostrum is full of antibodies to boost your baby’s ability to fight infection.
Babies are often very alert and keen to feed in the first hour after birth.
Every time your baby feeds, it lets your body know how much milk to produce. This will increase or decrease depending on your baby’s needs. Most babies will want to breastfeed at least eight to ten times a day.
You can’t over-feed a breastfed baby as breastfeeding is not only food for your baby, it can also be a comfort and a great way of calming both you and your baby.
Tips for breastfeeding
Like any new skill, breastfeeding takes time and practice to perfect. Here are a few tips to help make breastfeeding work and make sure you and your baby benefit as much as possible:
- hold your baby’s whole body close with their nose level with your nipple
- support your baby’s neck and shoulders and allow their head to tilt back
- when your baby’s mouth opens wide, the chin should touch the breast first with the head tipped back, so the tongue can reach as much breast as possible
- mums are encouraged to practice responsive feeding – this means feeding for both food and comfort and offering feeds well before your baby starts crying
- there is usually no need to offer formula milk as well as breastmilk
- if you do decide to give formula, keep breastfeeding as much as possible so that you keep producing plenty of breastmilk
- try not to give your baby a dummy until after breastfeeding is going really well as this can confuse the baby and may lower your milk supply
How to know if your baby is feeding correctly
Sometimes it can be hard to tell if your baby is attached correctly to the breast . There are a few ways you can tell:
- your baby has a large mouthful of breast
- your baby’s chin is firmly touching your breast
- your baby’s cheeks stay full and rounded during sucking
- more of the areola (darker area around your nipple) can be seen above baby’s top lip than below the bottom lip
- your baby rhythmically sucks and swallows and takes short breaks
- your baby finished the feed and comes off the breast on their own
- your nipples are not painful during feeding
How to check your breastfed baby is getting enough milk
You will know breastfeeding is going well because:
- your baby will be having at least 6 wet nappies a day
- your baby will be having at least 2 yellow poos a day
- your baby feeds at least 8 times a day
- your baby usually feeds for between 5 and 40 minutes each feed
- by two weeks of age your baby is back to their birth weight
The rate by which breastfed babies gain weight varies but for most they will gain;
- 0-4 months 125-200g per week (5-8oz)
- 4-6 months 50-150g per week (2-6oz)
- 6-12 months 25-75g per week (1-3oz)
Breastfeeding when out and about
If you want to breastfeed when you are out and about, it’s a good idea to wear something that will make it easier for you. Wearing a t-shirt or vest top and a cardigan so you can lift your top up from the waist will help.
The Public Health Agency’s Breastfeeding Welcome Here scheme supports mothers who are breast feeding. It asks businesses to display a pink and white heart-shaped sticker saying breastfeeding mums are welcome.
Visit the Breastfed babies website to view the map of over 700 places throughout Northern Ireland where you are particularly welcome to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding more than one baby
Twins, triplets or more can be breastfed. Because multiple babies are more likely to be born prematurely and to have low birth weight, breastmilk is especially important for their wellbeing.
At first, you might find it easier to feed each of your babies separately until you feel confident about handling them at the same time. Over time, you will learn what works best for you and your babies. Triplets can be fed two together and then one after or all three rotated at each feed.
Alternatively, you can use a combination of breastmilk and formula. Twins Trust (formerly called Tamba) provides support on breastfeeding multiple babies;
How long to breastfeed for
Exclusive breastfeeding (with no other food or drink) is recommended for around the first six months of a baby’s life. After this, you can carry on breastfeeding along with other foods for as long as you and your baby want. This can be into their second year and beyond.
There is no need to decide at the beginning how long you will breastfeed. Many mothers manage to continue to breastfeed when they return to work or college.
Introducing solid foods
Babies are usually ready to start taking solids from about six months. At this age, they can sit up and no longer have the protective tongue thrust reflex which uses their tongue to stop foods getting into the back of their mouths.
You can continue breastfeeding while introducing your baby to solid foods. As your baby gets used to solids, they might want to breastfeed less often. Eventually they may only want to breastfeed in the morning and before bed.
There are health advantages for your baby if you delay giving them solids until they are six months old, including;
- fewer stomach and chest infections
- their digestive system and kidneys will be more mature
- a reduced risk of allergies like asthma and eczema
You will know when your baby is ready for solid food because:
- they sit up
- their tongue thrust reflex is less noticeable
- they can chew
- they can pick up food and put it in their mouth
When you start weaning your baby, you should:
- make sure everything you need is clean
- offer small amounts at first, one or two teaspoons a day
- mash or blend food and mix it with expressed breast milk or boiled, cooled water
- feed baby when they are usually relaxed
- heat cooked food thoroughly and allow it to cool before feeding
- feed at your baby’s pace and allow them to get used to new tastes and textures
- don’t reuse uneaten food
- don’t add food to your baby’s bottle, this can damage teeth and cause choking
Weaning your baby before six months is not recommended and you should never wean your baby before they are four months old. If you decide to start weaning before six months, don’t give foods that could cause an allergic reaction or contain harmful bacteria.
Avoid giving them:
- foods containing gluten
- nuts and seeds
- fish and shellfish
- soft and unpasteurised cheese