Lactation, or milk production in the breasts, begins about one to three days after a woman gives birth. Pituitary hormones stimulate milk production in response to the stimulation of the infants suckling the nipples.1 At this time, based on personal preference, you can decide whether you would like to feed your newborn with breast milk or with bottles of store-bought baby formula. Making the decision to breastfeed is a highly personal matter, although it may be difficult to deter strong opinions from your friends and family. You and your baby are unique, along with your entire pregnancy journey, and it is important to incorporate all of your experiences when deciding to breastfeed or not.
When to Decide About Breastfeeding
Meet with your doctor to discuss feeding options during your pregnancy. This provides a controlled, relaxed environment for you to weigh the options and discuss your concerns about feeding your baby. Having the conversation about breastfeeding before the delivery allows you to make an informed decision post-partum if switching between breastfeeding and using formula.4 Additionally, notifying your physician about your decision will allow them to provide you with the assistance needed to be successful.
The Importance of Breastfeeding
During the first year of your baby’s life, they will triple their body weight mainly due to the milk consumed. It is important to know the process of how nursing your child—whether it be through breastmilk or formula—affects their childhood and growth development. Ask your physician about all the potential options for feeding your growing child, and the benefits of breastfeeding and formula-feeding. Prenatal classes can also be informational regarding the multifaceted aspects of breastfeeding, in addition to showing techniques for feeding.3 Ask your physician to help find a breastfeeding class or ask other mothers for information or help. These women could share their experiences or provide breastfeeding tips to assist you in this decision-making process.
The Benefits of Breastfeeding
Positive Emotional Experience
Breastfeeding can be a satisfying experience for the mother. This close physical contact with their babies can reduce a mother’s stress level and lower her risk of postpartum depression. Breastfeeding releases the hormone oxytocin, promoting a nurturing and relaxing experience for the mother.1 Taking a break throughout the day to sit quietly and feed your baby provides a relaxing and comfortable time to enjoy special moments. Take a moment to appreciate these times and sit with your feet up, take deep breaths, and appreciate how lucky you are. It is also an empowering experience to see your baby thrive and grow based on your breastmilk, in addition to learning your baby’s subtle cues for when they are full or hungry. Breastfeeding also builds relationships with other moms going through the same struggles and joys you are. Women can bond by discussing nighttime feedings, parenting styles, or breastfeeding at work.4 In addition to providing positive hormones for you as a mother, your child can also be comforted by breastfeeding. A distressed child can be easily consoled by breastfeeding and being held close to the mother.3
Temporarily Inhibited Ovulation
When a woman is breastfeeding, her body ceases to create the hormone necessary for ovulation (the release of an egg from the ovary).2 If an egg is not released, pregnancy cannot occur. Women who feed their babies exclusively with breast milk may cease to ovulate for several months. However, breastfeeding alone is not a reliable form of birth control. Breastfeeding, coupled with condoms or another barrier method can increase protection from another pregnancy.2 This delay in ovulation also helps prevent an iron deficiency after giving birth, which can be common after delivery.3
Nursing Child Receives Antibodies and Immunity-Producing Substances
Newborn babies have very immature immune systems and are less able to fight illness-causing germs. Breast milk is filled with antibodies that strengthen the newborn’s immune system by providing immunities that fight against germs and illnesses to which the mother has been exposed.6 Studies have shown that babies who were exclusively breastfed got sick less often than babies who were not. The protection against illness continues even after breastfeeding ends, which will save you money in the long run by reducing medical costs and sickness medication even past infancy.6
Breastmilk promotes a healthy digestive system because it is easier for your newborn to digest than formula. This prevents gas and colic, in addition to less smelly bowel movements and irritated skin. Breastfed babies also tend to experience less diarrhea and constipation, in turn reducing the potential for irritating diaper rash.6
Cheap, Reliable, and Available Source of Baby Food
A woman’s breasts are always with her, so breast milk is a convenient, free source of food for her child. It is easier to utilize a consistent supply of readily available baby food than to run to the store to buy baby formula, bottles, nipples, liners, and miscellaneous utensils. Pumps and bottles can be expensive, but breastfeeding requires no prep-work or set up, and breastmilk is at the perfect temperature straight from your nipple.2 This is especially important during nighttime feedings, when the hassle of measuring, heating, and preparing bottles in the middle of the night can be replaced by simply breastfeeding.
Supported by Well-Respected Institutions
Joining a long list of organizations, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement that strongly supports breastfeeding. They stated that breastfeeding provides the ideal nutrition and sufficient optimal growth support for developing newborns.1 These organizations suggest that babies be breastfed for 6 to 12 months. In any case, some breastfeeding is better than none.1
Data suggests that there is a strong correlation between a child’s cognitive ability and the length of time the child was breastfed.3 One study, which followed more than 17,000 infants from birth for 6.5 years, concluded from IQ scores and other intelligence tests that exclusive breastfeeding significantly improves cognitive development.3 This may be due to the fact that only a third of the human brain is formed at birth. Humans have evolved for millions of years to develop by consuming breast milk.4
Fewer Food Allergies and Food Related Problems
Babies who are fed cow or soymilk-based formulas tend to have more allergies than babies who were exclusively breastfed.1 Babies who are exclusively breastfed also tend to have less allergy-related problems such as diarrhea, vomiting, eczema, gastrointestinal infections, and respiratory infections.3 Breast milk has several different immunoglobulins that help to protect against allergies. One particular immunoglobulin, IgA, is found only in breast milk and prevents allergic reactions by providing a protective layer in a baby’s intestinal track. By the time babies are 6 to 9 months old, they have begun to produce IgA on their own, but until then, breast milk is the only available source of this substance.1
Low Nutritional Quality of Store-Bought Formulas
Store-bought baby formulas may contain whey protein concentrate, soy, coconut, high-oleic safflower oils, lactose, salt, potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, zinc sulfate, copper sulfate, soy lecithin, mono and diglycerides, riboflavin, pyridoxine hydrochloride, and/or folic acid.7 Whey, one of the main ingredients in almost all formulas, is a waste by-product of certain dairy products, particularly cheeses. Palm, coconut, and safflower oils are also main ingredients, which are also used in many snack foods (such as movie theatre popcorn) and are not easily digested by babies.7 These foods can be more difficult for the infant’s fragile system to digest. Breast milk is easily digested in a baby’s stomach, often making it the best choice for feeding newborns.7 It is always important to research the ingredients in store-bought products, and to work together with your family doctor to determine the best options for feeding your child.
Reforming Your Body
Breastfeeding releases oxytocin, a hormone that induces uterine contractions and helps the uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size.8 Women who breastfeed tend to recover from childbirth faster than those who choose not to nurse their children. Breastfeeding may also reduce uterine bleeding after birth and burn calories to more efficiently lose pregnancy weight. Women who breastfeed also have a lower risk of postmenopausal osteoporosis due to the body absorbing calcium more efficiently during lactation.8
Unlike store-bought formula, human milk is delivered without excess packaging or processing and thus contributes to the health of our planet by avoiding needless waste. Dairy cows, which are a major aspect of the infant formula-making process, are a significant producer of the greenhouses gases that are currently warming our planet.6 Their belching and manure release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere, increasing the size of the hole in our ozone layer.6
Pumping Is Always an Option
Pumping your breast milk can provide you with a bit more freedom, making it easier for you to spend time working, exercising, or doing other activities you enjoy.8 This also allows your partner, family, or friends to participate in feedings by bottle-feeding your child with the breastmilk you provided. Your baby still gains the health benefits of the naturally produced milk, you gain a well-deserved break from feedings, and others can provide assistance in the constant feedings.8 Win win win!
Possible Disadvantages of Breastfeeding and Related Warnings
Reduced Estrogen and Decreased Sexual Desire
Nursing decreases the levels of estrogen produced in a woman’s body. Estrogen conditions and maintains vulvar tissue and promotes vaginal lubrication, so this decrease may cause nursing mothers to be less interested in sexual activity.8 If a woman partakes in sexual intercourse, her genitals may become sore from this lack of estrogen. Many mothers that breastfeed sleep with their child, which can be a sexual turn-off. Breastfeeding also limits your choices of birth control because birth control containing estrogen reduces breastmilk’s quantity and quality.4
Negative Emotions About Breastfeeding
Some women may feel uncomfortable about the prospect of nursing, perhaps due to societal views on breasts as sex symbols. In some countries, breastfeeding in public is illegal or socially taboo, which can cause embarrassment for the mother. Milk may also be ejected involuntarily from a breastfeeding woman’s nipples during sexual stimulation, which can be a potentially bothersome occurrence.2
Breastfeeding is a difficult and, at times, discouraging process. Not every baby latches on easily or immediately, which could leave the mother feeling disappointed. Nursing may be more difficult than anticipated, so if a mother does intend to breastfeed, she should take the struggles into account and seek out resources that may help create a successful experience.
Demands of School or Career
Because babies digest breast milk faster than formula, breastfed babies need to eat more often.2 This can strain the mother, as she may find it difficult to handle the sole feeding responsibility. The frequency of feeding provides a challenge to completing simple tasks, like running errands or going out for a meal. This is a particularly relevant issue if a woman returns to school or work shortly after giving birth. Some women find incredible discomfort in breastfeeding at their workplace, as they may feel embarrassment and stress.
Unequal Feeding Responsibilities
Childcare responsibilities are harder to share when an infant is breastfed, since only the birth mother can provide natural milk for the child. Nursing mothers are on call 24/7 with very little flexibility and alone-time. Breastfeeding children tend to eat more than those drinking formula milk, so breastfeeding sessions are even more frequent than bottle-feeding ones.4 Using formula and bottle-feeding provides an opportunity for family members and friends to be a part of the feeding process. Breastfeeding mothers also have the option to pump, which is another way to give others an opportunity to bond with the new baby and a well-deserved break for the mother. The time-commitment, the “on call” nature of feedings, and the struggle for others to food bond with their child are three major reasons many refrain from nursing.
Hormonal Birth Control
Women who decide to breastfeed cannot use hormonal birth control such as the pill, vaginal ring, or shot. Since estrogen-containing birth control reduces the amount of milk, affects milk quality, and can cause newborns to ingest hormones, women who breastfeed must use an alternative form of birth control.3
Cigarettes and Smoke Exposure
Cigarette smoking, as well as environmental (second-hand) smoke, reduces the amount of milk a mother produces.5 Mothers who are exposed to smoke generally nurse for shorter durations than mothers who live a smokeless lifestyle. Infections, weakened immune systems, and colic are all associated with exposure to cigarette smoke through breastfeeding mothers.5 Nicotine transferred from the mother’s milk to a baby results in a more irritable child with higher levels of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Babies with mothers who smoke sleep significantly less. In addition, milk produced by a mother who smokes tastes different than the natural flavor of breastmilk.5
Breast and Nipple Pain
A woman’s breasts may become tender and sore while she is breastfeeding, and some women chose to stop nursing altogether because they find it too painful. It is likely that the child will favor one breast over another, resulting in one breast producing more milk and causing a noticeable size different in breasts.4 If your breasts are engorged, they may feel lumpy and incredibly hard, and could leak unexpectedly. Milk ducts can also become blocked—resulting in bruising and pain—but continuing to breastfeed is important to prevent engorgement. The nipples may also become cracked and painful, especially in the first six months after delivery.8
Certain antidepressants—commonly taken by mother with postpartum depression and other mental health issues—can be passed through breastmilk.4 This means that mothers on certain medications cannot breastfeed in order to prevent passing the medication to their child. Caffeine and alcohol can also be passed through breastmilk, so mothers need to watch their consumption in order to prevent effects on their baby.4
A balanced diet is incredibly important for breastfeeding mothers, a time that can extend from months to years. The nine months of carrying a child is a massive physical toll on a woman’s body and having to continue that careful diet into breastfeeding is not a possible feat for some mothers. Nursing mothers need to avoid foods that are overly spicy, foods that cause gas and bloating, and foods that cause their babies discomfort. Stress and other factors can also affect breastfeeding and decrease breastmilk supply.2
Carrying a child for nine months can be an incredible journey, but can also deprive mothers of their right to freedom. Breastfeeding adds to that time as the mother needs to be constantly ready to feed their hungry child. It’s hard to leave a child with other family members or sitter for fear that the child will not be properly fed. A nursing mother’s breasts or breastmilk (if the mother is pumping) must be available for every feeding, regardless of time of day or location. This constant need can become exhausting, especially during the first few months when feeding occurs every two to three hours.
Unable to Measure Amount Baby is Drinking
When using formula to feed a child, it is easy to measure the levels of milk they are consuming. With breastfeeding, however, mothers have no basis of how much milk the baby is drinking, which often leads to worry regarding whether or not the baby is drinking enough milk, getting the necessary nutrition, or getting fed too much. Many moms find it difficult to gauge whether their baby is drinking the proper amount, or if their milk ducts are producing enough milk, which may lead to stress on the mother.
Breastfeeding in Public
Some women feel uncomfortable or overly exposed when breastfeeding in public, especially as many places do not provide a private location to nurse. This can drive women to feel compelled to stay home more often, which could lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation. Some options, like nursing covers or certain feeding shirts, provide a bit more discretion, but the child may outgrow these before they are done breastfeeding. Nursing in public requires planning ahead, feeling self and body confident, and ignoring the potentially rude or vocal comments made by passersby. This deters some women from even trying to breastfeed, especially in public spaces.
The important decision of whether or not to breastfeed should be made by the parent(s) prior to or immediately after birth. Both the benefits and disadvantages should be considered before making this choice. Having a clear feeding plan ahead of time can prevent frustration and confusion later, so talk with your doctor about your nursing goals, which could be breastmilk-only, formula-only, or a combination of both options. Additionally, even if you do have a set nursing plan, different factors could affect your ability to breastfeed, like your child being allergic to breastmilk, inverted nipples, or premature birth. The decision to breastfeed may be one of the first major decisions you make regarding your baby’s future, so it is natural and normal to be worried or scared. Consider multiple options and choose what works for you.
- “Breastfeeding Overview.” WebMD.
- Gill, Karen. “Breast-Feeding vs. Bottle-Feeding: The Pros and Cons.” Healthline, 17 Feb. 2016.
- Lucia, Carole Anderson. “20 Breastfeeding Benefits for Mom and Baby.” Fit Pregnancy and Baby, Fit Pregnancy and Baby, 3 Apr. 2017.
- Max, Erin. “4 Disadvantages of Breastfeeding.” The Humbled Homemaker, 31 Jan. 2018.
- Mennella, Julia, and Lauren Yourshaw. “Breastfeeding and Smoking: Short-Term Effects on Infant Feeding and Sleep.” Pediatrics, 1 Apr. 2008.
- Murray, RN, BSN | Reviewed by Meredith Shur, MD, Donna. “What Are the Pros and Cons of Breastfeeding?” Verywell Family, 12 Feb. 2018.
- Stöppler, MD Melissa Conrad. “Breastfeeding and Formula Feeding: Problems, Pumping & Benefits.” MedicineNet.
- Taylor, Jennifer. “The 7 Unspoken Disadvantages of Breastfeeding.” Mom Tricks, 22 July 2017.
Last Updated: 9 March 2018.