Breast milk is the perfect food for babies. It contains all the antibodies and nutrients they need to grow. For this reason, it's recommended that infants breastfeed exclusively (no other food or drink, including water) until the age of about 6 months. A vitamin D supplement is recommended for all exclusively or partially breastfed babies.
Infants are ready to start a gradual transition to solid foods toward the age of 6 months, though breast milk should remain their primary food source. As long as both mother and child are willing, breastfeeding can continue until age 2 or longer.
Breastfeeding is widely recognized as being important for an infant's short- and long-term health. Breastfeeding is associated with better cognitive development. It provides protection against gastrointestinal infections, acute ear infections, respiratory tract infections, and sudden infant death syndrome. Milk that is naturally produced by the mother is also less likely to contain foreign allergens.
The benefits for the mother are less well known. Studies show that breastfeeding may protect against diseases such as breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Breastfeeding can also help women lose the weight gained during pregnancy. In addition, exclusive breastfeeding can temporarily delay the return of menstruation.
Breastfeeding is also economical and environmentally friendly. Breast milk is free, contains no preservatives, and requires no transportation or packaging. What's more, breastfeeding promotes the establishment of an attachment bond between mother and child.
The first 4 to 6 weeks are a period of adaptation and learning for both mother and child. Learning about breastfeeding and the services available in your area before your little one is born will make this adjustment easier. The following tips can help ensure that breastfeeding is a smooth process for you and your baby:
- Initiate skin-to-skin contact with your baby immediately after birth (either parent).
- Be with your baby 24/7. For the first few weeks, newborns need to be fed about 8 times or more every 24 hours.
- Learn to recognize when your baby is hungry so that you can breastfeed as soon as you notice the signs:
- Licking their lips
- Bringing their hands to their mouth
- Trying to suckle when you touch their mouth or cheek
- Don't wait until your baby cries, as a crying baby needs to be calmed before they can start to nurse.
- Don't feed your newborn anything other than breast milk (no food, drink, or water) unless medically indicated.
- Don't give your baby a pacifier, as it may prevent you from noticing signs of hunger.
- Avoid using a bottle to feed your baby. Other feeding methods are less likely to interfere with breastfeeding.
- Maintain lactation if you are temporarily away from your baby.
- Get as much rest as possible. Make the most of your baby's naps and don't hesitate to ask for help.
Problems and solutions
Don't delay seeking help if a problem arises. Consult the Where to find information section below for resources. The following are examples of difficulties you may encounter when breastfeeding, along with potential solutions:
- Nipple pain:
- Ensure a good latch.
- Allow a few drops of milk to dry on the nipple after feeding, as breast milk has natural protective properties.
- Breast pain (swelling):
- Breastfeed frequently and express your milk as needed.
- Apply warm compresses to your breasts before feeding and cold compresses between feedings.
- Perceived lack of milk and/or uncertainty about whether your baby is drinking enough:
- Ensure a good latch (improper latching is often the problem).
- Don't neglect night feedings.
- Monitor your baby's growth (WHO Growth Charts for Canada).
- Ensure that you're changing at least 6 wet diapers every 24 hours.
- Health problems in your newborn (colic, reflux, constipation):
- Colic usually goes away on its own by the age of 4 months. Dietary changes have little or no effect.
- Regurgitation is a normal and frequent occurrence in infants. Treatment is only necessary in the event of complications.
- Bowel movements that vary in frequency may suggest constipation, but this is extremely rare in breastfed babies.
- Use of medication, drugs, or alcohol:
- Most medications are safe for a woman to use while breastfeeding. For certain medications, an individualized approach may be considered.
- It's possible to engage in moderate, occasional alcohol consumption while breastfeeding. However, no amount is recognized as safe.
- Smoking can interfere with milk production, the baby's development and the sleep cycle. Of course, quitting smoking is the best advice one can follow. If that's not possible, breastfeeding is still important. Doing so can reduce some of the negative effects of smoking on the child.
Where to find information
There are many breastfeeding resources available that can provide you with support and information. They can help you at any stage, whether you're preparing to breastfeed, currently breastfeeding, or in the process of weaning your baby. Here are a few of those resources:
- Self-help or support groups:
- Breastfeeding professionals:
- Information on infant feeding and nutrition:
You have the right to breastfeed your baby anywhere and at any time. No one should be able to stop you from breastfeeding in public or ask you to move or cover up.