Breastfeeding - an introduction
Congratulations on your newborn baby – now the fun begins!
This page may be of interest to new mums, or to those that want to know more about the benefits of breastfeeding.
The information below covers feeding your baby from birth to about 6 months, when they are ready for solid food (known as 'complementary feeding'). If you want to know more about introducing solid foods to your baby why not look at our introducing solid foods to your baby page.
Top tips on feeding your baby and looking after you
Giving your baby nothing apart from breast milk is recommended for the first 26 weeks (6 months) – this is also known as exclusive breastfeeding. This is because it contains all the energy, nutrients* and fluid your baby needs for healthy growth and development. It also protects your baby from infections and diseases and has long-term health benefits for both you and your baby.
While it’s important that your baby gets all the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development, it’s also important that you eat well and stay healthy, so you can best care for your baby.
As a mum it is natural to have questions and maybe concerns about feeding your baby, even if it's not your first child. It’s also common for some mothers to take a bit longer to feel confident breastfeeding especially at the beginning. Your midwife or health visitor is there to help you and provide support and information during this time, so if you do have any concerns get in touch with them.
Breastfeeding will give your baby the healthiest start possible and there are health benefits for you too.
Over three quarters of new mums in the UK start breastfeeding, but it is important for your baby’s health to try and continue breastfeeding, as only 1% of mothers continue breastfeeding exclusively up to 6 months as recommended. Find out more about the support available on this NHS page.
Breast milk and your baby
Breast milk is the only food or drink babies need in the first 6 months of life*.
Your breast milk changes to meet your baby’s changing needs as they grow and develop:
- Colostrum (often described as ‘first milk’) is produced in the first few days after birth. It is rich in antibodies, which are proteins that play a key role in the baby’s immune system.
- Two to three days after birth, colostrum changes to a milk that may look thin compared with colostrum, and babies will then begin to take larger volumes of milk.
- As well as changing over time from colostrum to a thinner milk, breast milk also changes during a feed – the milk available at the start of a feed is more dilute, providing the baby with extra fluids, whereas that at the end of a feed it is more energy dense.
At around 6 months, your baby will be ready to be introduced to other foods and drinks alongside breast milk. The timing of the introduction of solid food to a baby’s diet is important for both nutritional and developmental reasons.
However, breast milk is still important for your baby’s growth and development. Breast milk is recommended as your baby's main milk drink throughout their first year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that the terms ‘weaning’ and ‘weaning foods’ should be replaced by the term ‘complementary feeding’, because ’weaning' is traditionally used to describe stopping breastfeeding.
Click here for more information on introducing solid foods.
Some women are unable or choose not to breastfeed their baby. Infant formula is the only suitable alternative to breast milk in the first 12 months of your baby's life, and this should be a formula based on cows' or goats' milk. Your midwife or health visitor will be able to give you information on preparing formula and feeding your baby if this situation applies to you.
*To ensure babies get enough vitamin D, the Department of Health and Social Care recommends that from birth to one year of age, breastfed babies should be given a daily supplement containing 8.5 to 10µg (micrograms) of vitamin D.
Babies fed infant formula should not be given a vitamin D supplement unless they are having less than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day, because infant formula is fortified with vitamin D by law.
Children aged 1 to 4 years should be given a daily supplement containing 10µg of vitamin D.
Health benefits of breastfeeding for your baby
Breastfeeding can help protect your baby from infections and diseases and can also have long-term benefits lasting into adulthood.
Breastfeeding your baby may reduce their risk of:
- infections, diarrhoea and vomiting
- obesity, type and cardiovascular disease in adulthood
There is also some limited evidence that breastfeeding may reduce risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and childhood leukaemia.
Health benefits of breastfeeding for you
Breastfeeding has health benefits for mothers too. Reviews of the evidence suggest that breastfeeding reduces the risk of:
- breast and ovarian cancers
- obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease
Scientists have calculated that your body may need 500kcal extra a day for milk production when babies are exclusively breastfed. However, it has since been suggested by research that this figure is too high, and around 330kcal a day is more likely. For some women, the extra energy needed for breastfeeding may help towards returning to their pre-pregnancy weight.
Information reviewed November 2016
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.