An Overview of Breastfeeding

Young woman holding baby son in blanket
Image Source / Getty Images

Women have been breastfeeding for as long as they have been having babies. For thousands of years, breastfeeding (also known as lactation, nursing, and suckling) was the only way for a mother to feed her baby, and it was necessary for a child's survival.

Then, in the early 1900s, an alternative to breastfeeding was developed—infant formula. As infant formula became safer, more people began to choose bottle-feeding formula over breastfeeding.

Over the next few decades, breastfeeding became less and less popular, and by the 1960s breastfeeding rates were at an all-time low. But in the 1970s, breastfeeding rates began to rise slowly.

As we continue to learn about breast milk and all the benefits that breastfeeding provides, breastfeeding is gaining support and popularity. Breastfeeding provides newborns and infants with a complete source of nutrition for the first 6 months of life.

As children grow, breastfeeding continues to be a nutritious part of a child's diet alongside the addition of solid foods.

Breastfeeding Recommendations

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises mothers to breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months of life, and then to breastfeed along with adding solid foods to a baby's diet for at least 1 year.

After 1 year, the AAP states that breastfeeding can continue for as long as a mother and child wish to do so.

The World Health Organization (WHO) urges exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, with the continuation of breastfeeding along with solid foods for 2 years or longer.

For some mothers, what is recommended by health organizations is not the best fit for them or their baby. This can be because of personal preferences, lifestyle limitations, and/or physical concerns (such as poor milk production).

Fed Is Best

At Verywell Family, we want to support parents by giving them information about all of the ways they can feed their newborns and babies—be it breastfeeding or bottle feeding. At the end of the day, "fed is best."

Types of Breastfeeding

All people, babies, and families are different. Not everyone breastfeeds in the same way. Therefore, there are different breastfeeding practices. Some people breastfeed fully, some breastfeed partially, and some breastfeed minimally. Here are some of the ways that people choose to breastfeed.

Exclusive Breastfeeding

Exclusive breastfeeding is putting a child to the breast for every feeding without giving a bottle or any other form of supplementation (such as formula, water, or baby food). When safe and possible to do so, exclusive breastfeeding is the recommended way to feed your child for the first four to six months.

Partial Breastfeeding

Some people want to breastfeed, but they aren't able to breastfeed exclusively. They may also choose not to. In these cases, a child can breastfeed part of the time or most of the time, but will also get formula. The combining of breastfeeding and formula feeding is called partial breastfeeding.

Complementary Feeding

Breastfeeding with the addition of solid foods is called complementary feeding. Complementary foods are often added to a child's diet between 4 and 6 months of age.

Comfort Nursing

Breastfeeding can be about more than just nutrition. If you cannot make enough breast milk, or if your child is older and gets most of their nutrition from solid foods, nursing at the breast is still beneficial and valuable.

Breastfeeding provides emotional support and a feeling of security. When your child is hurt, sick, or going through a difficult time, comfort nursing can help fulfill your child's psychological and emotional needs.

About Breast Milk

Breast milk is the ideal source of nutrition for babies. From colostrum to transitional breast milk to mature breast milk, it provides what your baby needs at every stage.

Breast milk is made up of a unique combination of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals that adjust with your child as they grow. It also contains immune-boosting antibodies, white blood cells, and enzymes that help protect your child from some common childhood illnesses.

While infant formula is a safe alternative for babies who cannot breastfeed, its composition is different than breast milk. Scientists are still discovering new components in breast milk and why they're important. For instance, breast milk changes throughout a feeding, from day to day, and over time—which is hard to manufacture.

Breastfeeding Positions and Latching On

When you're just getting started with breastfeeding, your baby's position and the way they attach to your breast are very important. A good breastfeeding position encourages a proper latch, which is necessary for breastfeeding success.

When your baby latches on well, they will be able to remove the breast milk from your breasts effectively. A correct latch allows your child to get enough breast milk, and it helps to prevent breast issues such as sore nipples.

It can take some time for your breasts to get used to feedings, but breastfeeding should not cause intense pain. If you experience pain when your baby latches on or attempts to, and it doesn't dissipate within 1 or 2 minutes (or with a change in position), talk to your healthcare provider, your child's pediatrician, and/or your lactation consultant.

The Stages of Breastfeeding

The way you breastfeed changes as your baby grows. Exclusively breastfed newborns should be put to the breast on demand, at least every 2 to 3 hours throughout the day and night. By the age of 2 months, your child may be able to go a little longer between feedings. They may even sleep for a longer stretch at night.

When your baby is between 4 and 6 months old, you will begin to introduce them to solid foods. At first, your baby won't be getting very much solid food, so breastfeeding will still be their main source of nutrition. As solids become a larger part of your child's diet, you will naturally begin breastfeeding less.

After your child's first birthday, they will be eating regular meals and snacks. At this stage, breastfeeding should no longer be the primary source of food or nutrition, but it is still an excellent addition to a healthy toddler diet.

Breastfeeding Challenges

Breastfeeding is not without its challenges. Whether it's difficult to get started or problems pop up after weeks or months of success, you will probably have to face at least one of the common breastfeeding problems at some point.

Sore nipples, blisters, breast engorgement, and plugged milk ducts are just a few of the issues that many people experience. Low milk supply, mastitis, and thrush are also common problems. Luckily, if these issues are addressed right away, most are easy to overcome.

Breastfeeding can also be challenging if your baby has health issues such as cleft lip or palate.

Breast Milk Supply

Most people make a healthy supply of breast milk. There is only a small percentage who will experience a true low milk supply. Typically, low milk supply is more of a worry than an actual problem. However, if you feel as though you're struggling to make enough, there are some steps you can take to increase your breast milk supply.

Your body makes breast milk based on a system of supply and demand. If you increase the demand, your body should increase the supply. As long as your baby is latching on to your breast correctly, breastfeeding more often or pumping after or in-between feedings will let your body know that you need more breast milk.

If you've tried to increase your milk supply naturally but you still aren't seeing improvement, talk to your healthcare provider. Depending on your situation, there are breastfeeding herbs and certain medications that may help.

Can Every Woman Breastfeed?

Almost all women can breastfeed. Even if you had a C-section, you have small breasts, or your nipples turn inward, you can still breastfeed successfully with the right support.

Only a small number of people cannot or should not breastfeed. For example, some people may not be able to make enough breast milk because of a previous breast or chest surgery, or they may not be able to breastfeed because they need to have chemotherapy or radiation to treat cancer.

Breastfeeding is also not recommended for people who have a health issue such as HIV or tuberculosis, those who use illegal drugs, or people who have to take certain prescription medications that are not compatible with breastfeeding.

Health and Nutrition for Breastfeeding Mothers

While you're breastfeeding, you don't have to follow a strict diet or deprive yourself of your favorite things, but food choices do matter. The foods you consume will directly impact the composition and volume of your milk, your energy levels, and the health status of both you and your baby.

Breastfeeding moms need to stay hydrated. Try to drink about 16 cups of water or other healthy liquids (unsweetened tea, seltzer, etc.) each day.

If you've been taking a prenatal vitamin, you can continue to take it while breastfeeding. You might also want to talk to your healthcare provider about any other vitamin supplements that you may need.

Breastfeeding may help you lose your pregnancy weight, but it won't happen overnight. Be patient with yourself and give it some time. You shouldn't go on a diet or take diet pills to try to lose weight while you're breastfeeding, but you can exercise. Talk to your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian about your weight loss goals and make a healthy, realistic plan together.

Pumping and Breastfeeding

Some people choose to pump and give their child pumped breast milk in a bottle. Pumping, even exclusive pumping, is often called breastmilk feeding. If you decide not to breastfeed, you can't breastfeed because your child is premature, or you have to go to work or school, pumping can be a great way to ensure your child gets the benefits of breast milk.

Weaning From Breastfeeding

Whether you breastfeed for 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, or longer, you'll eventually have to wean your baby from the breast. Weaning is a process. It may go smoothly or it may be a tough time for both you and your baby.

Weaning can also cause feelings of sadness or even depression in some mothers.

While some children may wean themselves, more often it's the mom who has to (or wants to) begin weaning. If it's possible, weaning slowly may be helpful. Gradual weaning can make the experience much easier for you, your baby, and your body.

Resources for Breastfeeding Parents

Breastfeeding is natural, but it isn't always easy. You may have questions while you're deciding whether or not breastfeeding is right for you, or you may find you need help weeks or months into breastfeeding.

There are plenty of resources available to assist you as you prepare to breastfeed and as you go along in your breastfeeding journey. Your healthcare provider, your baby's pediatrician, a lactation consultant, or a local breastfeeding group are great places to start when you need some help.

A Word From Verywell

Breastfeeding is a personal decision. It may be an easy choice or something that you're struggling with. While it's natural, it's not always without some difficulty.

Whether you're just starting to research your options or you've been breastfeeding for a while, having reliable information can make all the difference. The more you learn about breastfeeding, combination feeding, and weaning, the more prepared you will be to make the best decisions for you, your baby, and your family.

11 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Breastfeeding USA. Nursing in public: what US mothers faced from colonial times until today.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Breastfeeding.

  3. World Health Organization. Breastfeeding.

  4. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Nursing your baby? What you eat and drink matters.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Positions for breastfeeding.

  6. American Academy of Pediatrics. Treating breast pain.

  7. Nemours KidsHealth. Breastfeeding FAQs: how often and how much.

  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Overcoming breastfeeding problems.

  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Are there any special conditions or situations in which I should not breastfeed?

  10. Aumeistere L, Ciproviča I, Zavadska D, Andersons J, Volkovs V, Ceļmalniece K. Impact of maternal diet on human milk composition among lactating women in Latvia. Medicina (Kaunas). 2019;55(5). doi:10.3390/medicina55050173

  11. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What is weaning and how do I do it?

Additional Reading
  • Eidelman, A. I., Schanler, R. J., Johnston, M., Landers, S., Noble, L., Szucs, K., & Viehmann, L. Breastfeeding and the use of human milkPediatrics. 2012;129(3):e827-e841. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-3552

By Donna Murray, RN, BSN
Donna Murray, RN, BSN has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Rutgers University and is a current member of Sigma Theta Tau, the Honor Society of Nursing.