Benefits for the baby
Breast milk is specially made for your baby. It contains all the fluid (drink) and nutrition (food) that your baby needs and is full of vitamins and minerals. It also contains antibodies that protect your baby from infections and it helps improve your baby’s long-term health. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), obesity and diabetes.
Benefits for the baby’s mother
Breastfeeding also benefits the baby’s mother. It lowers the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis (weak bones), heart disease and obesity. It also helps the mother’s uterus (womb) get back down to size after delivery and can help strengthen the bond between mum and baby. During breastfeeding a hormone called oxytocin is released that helps you feel calm and connected with your baby.
How long to breastfeed for?
Any amount of breastfeeding is beneficial. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF recommend that babies have their first breastfeed within the first hour of birth. Babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life. Breast milk adapts to give your baby everything they need. This means they do not need any other foods or liquids, including water before they are 6 months old. Babies should be breastfed on demand. That means as often as they want, day or night.
From the age of 6 months, babies should begin eating solid foods while continuing to breastfeed until 2 years old or older.
Preparing to breastfeed for the first time
In the first few days, you and your baby will be getting to know each other. It may take time for both of you to get the hang of breastfeeding.
The milk your breasts produce in the first few days after birth is called colostrum. It's thick and usually a golden yellow colour. It's a very concentrated food, so your baby will only need about a teaspoonful at each feed.
To begin with your baby may want to feed often, perhaps every hour. After a few days they'll begin to have fewer, but longer feeds, once your breasts start to produce mature milk.
Your baby's sucking causes muscles in your breasts to squeeze milk towards your nipples. This is called the let-down reflex.
Some women get a tingling feeling, which can be quite strong. Others feel nothing at all.
You'll see your baby respond when your milk lets down. Their quick sucks will change to deep rhythmic swallows as the milk begins to flow. Babies often pause after the initial quick sucks while they wait for more milk to be delivered.
The NHS has more information about breastfeeding in the first few days.
Visit our page on how to 'How to tell if breastfeeding is going well'