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mom breastfeeding her baby

Health Benefits of Breastfeeding Your Baby

When you’re pregnant, one of the most important decisions you need to consider is how you will feed your baby. Today, roughly 76% of women in the United States—including right here in Pittsburgh, Erie, and surrounding areas—are choosing to breastfeed. Nursing has many health benefits for your baby, including:

  • They are more likely to gain the right amount of weight as they grow, avoiding the risk of becoming overweight children.
  • Breast milk is more easily digested than formula and results in fewer spit-ups and fewer episodes of constipation.
  • Breast milk changes over time as your baby grows, so it provides exactly the nutrition your baby needs for as long as you continue.

Breast milk provides your baby with more than just good nutrition and bonding time. It also offers important substances to fight infection. Breast milk contains antibodies—special proteins that fight off infections—that are absent from formula.

In the first few days following your baby’s birth, you will produce "early breast milk," colostrum (coh-LOSS-trum), which is sometimes known as “liquid gold” and can act as a 100% safe first immunization for your baby.

Here are a few additional facts about breastfed babies:

  • They have fewer chest and ear infections and fewer visits to the doctor’s office and hospital.
  • They are less likely to develop diarrhea, constipation, asthma, and some cancers.
  • They are less likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
  • They are less likely to become obese and therefore less likely to develop type 2 diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses later in life.

Maternal-infant bonding

There is a physical closeness, skin-to-skin touching, and eye contact – all of which support maternal-infant bonding in one of the most critical times for you and your baby following delivery. In your arms or snuggled alongside you, your baby is nurtured by the warmth of your body and comforted by your familiar scent. Your baby hears your heartbeat and the sound of your voice.

Nursing your baby also encourages time for your baby to study your face, exchange expressions with you, and share verbal cues. Not only does this deepen the attachment between the two of you, but much of your baby’s early verbal, emotional, and social learning is meant to occur during this focused time.

Health benefits for mom

Breastfeeding doesn’t only benefit your baby; it benefits your health, too!

  • It helps your body recover from pregnancy and labor, helps to shrink your uterus back to normal size, and helps to reduce bleeding after childbirth.
  • It lowers your risk of getting diabetes, ovarian cancer, and some forms of breast cancer.
  • It also saves money – infant formula and other supplies needed for formula feeding can be very costly.

Preparing to Breastfeed

Breast changes during pregnancy

All women undergo breast changes beginning early in their pregnancy, including starting to make milk! This typically happens during the first 10-to-12 weeks of pregnancy. There are also changes in the breasts as pregnancy progresses.

  • Breasts become larger, and the area around the nipple called the areola will become larger and darker.
  • The nipple itself may start to leak a thick, clear, or yellow-to-brown-colored special milk known as colostrum at any time during the pregnancy.

Almost all women are physically able to breastfeed, but that doesn’t mean that it will come naturally. It is a skill every mother needs to learn and practice. It happens more quickly for some mothers than others.

Allegheny Health Network strives to help nursing mothers achieve success by providing skilled, supportive and personalized education for you and your support person, based on your needs and the needs of your baby both BEFORE and AFTER your baby is born.

Medical conditions that can make breastfeeding more difficult

Certain medical conditions can make nursing more difficult. These conditions include:

  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type I and II
  • Hypo- and Hyperthyroidism
  • History of surgical breast augmentation, breast reduction and/or nipple surgery

In cases like these, it may be a good idea to meet with a lactation consultant as early in your pregnancy as the first trimester. A lactation consultant can help you develop a plan to support your decision to breastfeed, as some of these medical conditions are associated with milk supply issues after delivery.

Medical reasons not to breastfeed

Every mother’s body makes breast milk to feed her baby, but there are a few medical conditions which, if you have them, you should not breastfeed, including:

  • HIV or HTLV diseases
  • Undergoing treatment for cancer, including chemotherapy
  • Having active HSV (herpes viruses) with lesions on the breast (you can most likely continue to nurse from the unaffected breast)
  • Have untreated chickenpox or untreated active tuberculosis (TB)

Frequently Asked Questions

What if I don't eat healthy foods?
Even if your own diet is lacking in certain nutrients, your baby will still get all the nutrition they need from your breast milk. A poor diet is more likely to affect your own health than your baby’s. If you want to start to improve your diet while you are pregnant, you will not only be healthier, but may feel better, too.

What if I'm vegetarian?
Vegetarian diets can be compatible with nursing. The Choose My Plate website provides meal plans that can be adapted for women who follow vegetarian diets. If you avoid meat, make sure you eat other sources of iron and zinc such as dried beans, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and dairy. If you avoid all animal products (vegan diet) you should take a vitamin B12 supplement to make sure your baby does not develop a vitamin B12 deficiency.

Do I need to stop drinking caffeine?
Most nursing mothers can consume a moderate amount of caffeine. That's roughly the amount of caffeine in two or three cups of brewed coffee, five or six cans of cola or one "energy shot" drink. Caffeine is passed into your milk, but most babies are not bothered by it. If your baby isn’t sleeping well or is irritable, you may want to limit or avoid caffeine. Newborns and babies less than six months of age may be more sensitive to caffeine than older babies.

What if I have diabetes?
Nursing is great for diabetic mothers and their babies. Colostrum helps to stabilize your baby’s blood sugars immediately after birth. Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months can reduce the risk of your baby becoming diabetic.

How can I avoid sore nipples?
Nursing should not hurt. Some mild discomfort can occur as your nipples get used to a baby suckling, but this discomfort should decrease and go away after the first minute or two of nursing. Nipples can get sore if your baby isn't attached well to the breast. Therefore, if your nipples or breasts hurt, ask for help to fix the problem so that breastfeeding is comfortable for both you and your baby.

Will nursing cause my breasts to sag?
Your breasts begin to sag from stretching out and growing during pregnancy. Your breasts may or may not return to their pre-pregnancy size and shape, regardless of whether you breastfeed or not. Age, genetics, and the number of pregnancies you’ve had also play a role.

What if I smoke?
Nicotine from smoking does pass into your breast milk, however, breast milk with a little nicotine is still more nutritious than formula. Try to cut back as much as you can and don't smoke around your baby. It is still healthier for your baby to breastfeed than formula-feed.

Can I drink alcohol?
Alcohol can pass into breast milk and can make mothers drowsy and less alert when taking care of the baby; however, breastfeeding mothers can drink alcohol.

If you wish to drink alcohol, wait two-to-three hours after each serving (12 oz. beer, 6 oz. wine, 1.5 oz. liquor) before breastfeeding/pumping with the expectation that the alcohol will no longer be in the breast milk by the next feeding. Alcohol does not stay in your milk; it is removed as your blood alcohol levels go down. When you are sober, the alcohol is gone from your milk. You could also express breast milk before having a drink and use it to feed your baby later. If you are going to have more than one or two drinks, make sure to leave your baby with a safe and sober person and wait to breastfeed until you are sober again.

What if I use illegal drugs?
Illegal drugs such as crack, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, and marijuana can pass through breast milk. These drugs can harm both mother and baby, and in some circumstances can cause death. Therefore, do not use any illegal drugs during pregnancy, especially if you would like to breastfeed. If you use illegal drugs even occasionally, seek assistance from your doctor or midwife now to get the help you need to be able to breastfeed your baby after delivery.

What if I have pierced nipples?
There is no evidence to show nipple piercing has any effect on a woman's ability to breastfeed. If you have a pierced nipple, remove nipple jewelry before nursing to avoid a potential choking hazard for the baby.

What if I have tattoos?
Unless the tattoo becomes infected, it shouldn't present a problem.

What if I had breast reduction/augmentation or nipple surgery?
Depending upon the type of surgery that was performed, most women can produce some amount of milk. And remember, every drop is greatly beneficial for your baby! Breast reduction surgery tends to affect milk supply the most, although any breast or nipple surgery can reduce the amount of milk a mother can make. If you had any breast or nipple surgery, it is important to contact a lactation consultant early in your pregnancy, as well as after delivery for individualized education, goal-setting, and support.

What if I have to go back to school or work?
Mothers can breastfeed, even if they work or go to school. Nursing mothers and their support persons miss fewer days of work or school because of a sick child. Most mothers who are in school or working are eligible to receive a breast pump after delivery that is covered by their insurance. If you are WIC eligible, WIC has special help, including breast pumps, for breastfeeding mothers who have to leave their babies.

What if I don't want to nurse in public?
You don't have to show your body to breastfeed. Many women want to nurse their babies, but are uncertain about whether they will feel comfortable doing so in public. If you are uncertain about nursing in public, practice latching your baby at home in front of a mirror, in front of your partner, or in front of a friend. Know exactly what everyone can see (or not see) ahead of time, and then decide if this is something you want to do. Lactation consultants are available to address any questions or concerns that mothers have, including breastfeeding in public.

Can mothers who had a cesarean section breastfeed?
Nursing as soon as possible after birth has advantages for mothers who have had cesareans just as it does for mothers who deliver vaginally. After a cesarean, you may need more help getting started, but this will get easier each day that passes. Your nurse can help you find comfortable breastfeeding positions that will keep the baby off your incision and make it more comfortable for you and your baby.

What if I want someone else to be able to feed the baby too?
Once your baby gets used to nursing and your milk supply is well established (usually after the first three to four weeks) – you can pump your milk so that others can give it to your baby in a bottle. It is much better for your baby to get your breast milk and not formula even if you want others to be able to help feed your baby. Pumping and storing milk for later will help to make this possible.