8 facts on breastfeeding

UNICEF and WHO actively promotes breastfeeding as the best source of nourishment for infants and young children.

UNICEF China
A mother breastfeeds her baby at the breastfeeding room of UNICEF China in Beijing in 2013.
UNICEF/China/2013/Wang Ling
06 August 2019

Breastfeeding is the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large.

Fact 1: Breastfeeding for the first six months is crucial

WHO recommends that:

  • mothers initiate breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth;
  • infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health, and thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods, while continuing to be breastfed; and
  • breastfeeding should continue for up to two years or beyond.

Fact 2: Breastfeeding protects infants from childhood illnesses

Breast milk is the ideal food for newborns and infants. It gives infants all the nutrients they need for healthy development. It is safe and contains antibodies that help protect infants from common childhood illnesses such as?diarrhoea?and pneumonia, the two primary causes of child mortality worldwide. Breast milk is readily available and affordable, which helps to ensure that infants get adequate nutrition.

Fact 3: Breastfeeding also benefits mothers

Exclusive breastfeeding is associated with a natural (though not fail-safe) method of birth control (98 per cent protection in the first six months after birth). It reduces risks of breast and ovarian cancer, type II diabetes, and postpartum depression.

Fact 4: Breastfeeding has long-term benefits for children

Beyond the immediate benefits for children, breastfeeding contributes to a lifetime of good health. Adolescents and adults who were breastfed as babies are less likely to be overweight or obese. They are less likely to have type-II diabetes and more likely to perform better in intelligence tests.

Fact 5: Infant formula does not contain the antibodies found in breast milk

The long-term benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and children cannot be replicated with infant formula. When infant formula is not properly prepared, there are risks arising from the use of unsafe water and unsterilized equipment or the potential presence of bacteria in powdered formula. Malnutrition can result from over-diluting formula to "stretch" supplies. While frequent feeding maintains breast milk supply, if formula is used but becomes unavailable, a return to breastfeeding may not be an option due to diminished breast milk production.

Fact 6: Support for mothers is essential

Breastfeeding?has to?be learned and many women encounter difficulties at the beginning. Many routine practices, such as separation of mother and baby, use of newborn nurseries and supplementation with infant formula,?actually make?it harder for mothers and babies to breastfeed. Health facilities that support breastfeeding by avoiding these practices and making trained breastfeeding counsellors available to new mothers encourage higher rates of the practice. To provide this support and improve care for mothers and newborns, most countries have implemented the WHO-UNICEF Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative, which sets standards for quality care.

Fact 7: Mothers should continue breastfeeding at work

Many mothers who return to work abandon breastfeeding partially or completely because they do not have?sufficient?time, or a place to breastfeed, express and store their milk. Mothers need a safe, clean and private place in or near their workplace to continue breastfeeding. Enabling conditions at work, such as paid maternity leave, part-time work arrangements, on-site crèches or childcare?centres, facilities for expressing and storing breast milk, and breastfeeding breaks, can help.?

Fact 8: Solid foods should be phased in at six months

To meet the growing needs of babies at six months of age, mashed solid foods should be introduced as a complement to continued breastfeeding. Foods for the baby can be specially prepared or modified from family meals. WHO notes that:

  • breastfeeding should not be decreased when starting on solids;
  • food should be given with a spoon or cup, not in a bottle;
  • food should be clean and safe; and
  • ample time is needed for young children to learn to eat solid foods.