• By Laurel Kelly

Consumer Health: The benefits, challenges and skill of breastfeeding

August 2, 2021
a young Black woman breastfeeding an infant in her arms

World Breastfeeding Week will be observed Aug. 1–7, which makes this a good time to learn more about the benefits, challenges and skill of breastfeeding.

In its Breastfeeding Overview, the American Academy of Pediatrics states its continued support of "the unequivocal evidence that breastfeeding protects against a variety of diseases and conditions," as well as listing the many benefits of breastfeeding to children, mothers, the environment and society.

As important as breastfeeding is to all concerned, though, it's like any other new skill: It needs to be learned, and questions and concerns often can arise along the way.

Breastfeeding can be challenging. Reading about it is one thing. Doing it can be a very different experience. From asking for help and learning the positions that work best for you and your baby to making healthy lifestyle choices and being patient with yourself, here are some tips that can help as you learn the skill of breastfeeding.

When you're breastfeeding, you may wonder how much milk your baby drinks during each feeding and whether he or she is getting enough. Every baby is different, and so are his or her feeding patterns. Here are a few ways you can be sure your baby is thriving on breast milk, and some signs that warrant consulting with your pediatrician.

Breast milk contains the right balance of nutrients for your baby to boost his or her immune system and promote his or her growth and health. You might have questions, however, about your own diet while breastfeeding. What foods are best? Do you need to increase your calorie intake? Are there foods you should avoid? Here are some basic nutrition tips for breastfeeding moms.

If you need to take medications while you're breastfeeding, you may have questions about safety and the effects on your baby. Almost any drug that's present in your blood will transfer into your breast milk to some extent. Most medications do so at low levels and pose no risk to most infants. However, some drugs can become concentrated in breast milk. As a result, every medication must be considered separately. Here's what you need to know about breastfeeding and medications.

Babies sometimes suddenly will refuse to breastfeed for a period of time after breastfeeding well for months. This doesn't necessarily mean your baby is ready to wean, though. He or she may be trying to tell you something. Common causes of a "breastfeeding strike" include teething, illness, distraction and reduced milk supply. Here are some tips for managing this time and getting your breastfeeding pattern back on track.

What happens if you return to work or need to be away from your baby for an overnight or longer? Pumping breast milk is a way to provide your baby with breast milk when you're not able to nurse, or to freeze it for future use. Here are 7 tips for pumping success.

Lastly, you may wonder how long to breastfeed. That's up to you and your baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months after birth and breastfeeding in combination with solid foods until at least age 1. Worldwide, babies are weaned on average between ages 2 and 4. Breastfeeding beyond infancy benefits mother and baby. For children, this may include balanced nutrition, boosted immunity and improved health. For mothers, breastfeeding longer may include improved health and reduced risk of illnesses, such as breast and ovarian cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes. Here's what you need to know about the benefits of breastfeeding beyond infancy.

Connect with other moms talking about breast feeding and supporting one another in the About Kids & Teens support group on Mayo Clinic Connect, an online patient community moderated by Mayo Clinic.