Breastfeeding 101: The Benefits, How to Breastfeed, and More

A fed baby is a happy and healthy baby, whether you’re breastfeeding or not. But if you’re interested in breastfeeding, you might be curious about its benefits and how it all works. It’s a wonderful way to nourish and bond with your baby and a completely natural process, but it may be challenging at first until you get the hang of it. Check out our detailed guide to what breastfeeding is, the benefits of breastfeeding, and how to do it, from latching on to pumping.

What Are the Benefits of Breastfeeding for Your Baby?

Breastfeeding gives your baby plenty of benefits, which is why it’s important and recommended by experts. So, what is breast milk good for, and why is it recommended? First and foremost, breast milk (also called human milk) comes packed with minerals and nutrients to help your little one grow and develop. Breast milk contains the following:

  • water

  • sugar (lactose)

  • easily digestible proteins (whey and casein)

  • digestible fatty acids

  • vitamins and minerals

  • enzymes to aid digestion and absorption.

These ingredients come together to create the perfect meal for your little one! But in addition to providing a well-balanced and easily digestible meal, breast milk may offer these additional benefits:

  • Lowered risk of specific ailments. Babies who aren’t breastfed have an increased risk of acquiring some diseases and conditions, including

    • ear infections

    • eczema

    • asthma

    • gastrointestinal issues that cause vomiting and diarrhea

    • allergic reactions

    • septicemia and bacterial meningitis

    • urinary tract infections

    • inflammatory bowel disease.

  • Reduced risk of SIDS and certain cancers. Breastfeeding is associated with a reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and childhood leukemia.

  • Lowered risk of respiratory illnesses. Non-breastfed babies have a 75 percent higher chance of developing respiratory issues that require hospitalization, including pneumonia.

  • Reduced risk of diabetes and obesity. There are also long-term benefits of breastfeeding, as it plays a role in preventing obesity and diabetes (Type I and Type II), both during childhood and into adulthood.

  • Heightened brain growth. Some studies suggest there are benefits of breastfeeding for cognitive development, as breast milk may enhance and support your baby’s brain growth.

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What Are the Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom?

It’s not only the baby who benefits from breastfeeding but also the parent. There are both psychological and physical health benefits and advantages of breastfeeding.

  • Bonding. Breastfeeding enhances parent-baby bonding because it (along with skin-to-skin contact) stimulates the release of oxytocin, the “love hormone.” This increases your innate feelings of attachment and protection toward your baby.

  • Pain control. When your baby nurses and stimulates the release of oxytocin, you may feel a wave of euphoria, which actually diminishes pain. So, although you’ll still feel pain after delivery, breastfeeding can help you cope.

  • Convenience. Breast milk is convenient, needing no preparation, which is one of its best benefits! It’s “free” (of course, it takes time and effort) and typically available when you need it.

  • Health. Another benefit of breastfeeding for moms is that it may reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers and diabetes.

  • Weight loss. Some evidence suggests breastfeeding can help with postpartum weight loss. Your body burns roughly 500 calories a day to produce breast milk, but don’t worry if you lose weight slowly, as everyone is different.

How to Prepare for Breastfeeding

The moment you’re pregnant is when your body starts preparing to breastfeed your new arrival. Your milk-carrying ducts start to develop, and your body will start storing fat to provide the extra energy you’ll need once breastfeeding. Some early signs of pregnancy include changes to your nipples and enlarged breasts. Many moms-to-be are surprised to learn that their breasts are ready to go and start producing milk as early as 16 weeks of pregnancy! So, really, there’s nothing you need to do, as your body is doing all the work for you. Otherwise, the only preparation you might want to consider is gathering or purchasing the necessary equipment to help support breastfeeding, which could include the following:

  • Nursing bras can help during your pregnancy, too, especially as your breasts get larger and heavier. These bras are a bit roomier and more supportive and come with a flap on the cup for easy access when breastfeeding.

  • Breast pumps are handy if you plan to pump in between feedings and store your milk for when you’re away from your baby, such as when at work or traveling. Check with your health insurance plan, as most are required to cover the cost of a breast pump.

  • Bottle warmers are optional, but getting your milk to the right temperature after storing it in the refrigerator can be tricky. A bottle warmer is a convenient way to reheat it safely!

  • Newborn baby essentials that all parents need, such as bottles and bibs.

Breastfeeding for Beginners: How Does It Work?

What do I need for breastfeeding, and how long do I breastfeed my baby each time? If you’re a breastfeeding beginner or a new parent, you’re probably asking yourself these questions! Although breastfeeding can take time to get used to, it’s natural. You’ll likely get the hang of it eventually, and it could be second nature to you before you know it.

When to Start Breastfeeding

You can start breastfeeding your baby from the first day they’re born, soon after birth. Consult your prenatal healthcare provider to build immediate skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding into your birth plan if you can, as it’s ideal to start breastfeeding within the first hour after birth. Of course, giving birth can be unpredictable, so it’s totally OK if you start feeding later on. Just try to get in that initial feed during the first couple of days, if possible.

How to Breastfeed: Step-by-Step

Even though breastfeeding is natural, knowing how to breastfeed a newborn and nursing a tiny baby doesn't come automatically and may take a little time and practice. Consider these steps as you start breastfeeding your baby on their first day:

  1. Start with skin-to-skin contact. Right after birth, you can hold your baby directly against your bare skin. That initial moment of skin-to-skin contact triggers the rooting reflex that helps your baby latch on for feeding.

  2. Try hand expressing milk. If your little one has trouble finding or latching onto your nipple, try to hand express a few drops of milk into their mouth to help them along.

  3. Stimulate reflexes. Cup your breast and stroke your baby’s lower lip with your nipple. If your baby has yet to root and latch, this stroking could help stimulate their reflexes.

  4. Get close. If your little one yawns or opens their mouth wide, pull them close to you, and aim your nipple toward the roof of their mouth. As the adage goes, bring your baby to your breast, not your breast to your baby.

Once you get going and your baby is suckling effectively, this action stimulates your milk production. The more your little one nurses, the more milk your body produces. In the breastfeeding world, this is known as the let-down reflex.

What Does Healthy Breast Milk Look Like?

In those first few days when you start breastfeeding, you may notice your milk is more of a thick, yellowish substance. If you start wondering if that’s what breast milk is supposed to look like, don’t worry—what you're seeing is normal and expected. At this stage, you’re producing what’s called colostrum, which has many benefits for your baby. Colostrum is your little one’s first meal and offers protection against diseases. It contains more protein and antibodies than mature breast milk but less fat and calories. You’ll produce colostrum for several days after your baby’s birth, but eventually, your breast milk will change to transitional milk and mature milk. As these changes occur, the nutritional value of your breast milk also adjusts to support your baby’s needs as they grow and develop. Here’s how your breast milk might change in the first week or so after giving birth:

  • First, you’ll notice your milk is getting creamier. This transitional milk results from your breasts shifting to producing mature breast milk.

  • Mature breast milk comes into total production at the end of the second week after your baby is born.

  • Mature milk is thinner than transitional milk when it’s first secreted, not unlike skim milk, but it becomes creamier when fat is released later during feeding.

How Long Should You Breastfeed at Each Feeding?

When breastfeeding a newborn, you may wonder how long they should nurse. Typically, newborns nurse for about 10 to 15 minutes on each breast. However, you might find that your baby only wants to feed on one breast, or they may want double portions, as every baby is different! When your little one releases from one breast, offer the other to see if they’re still hungry. If not, just plan to start feeding with the other breast next time. Let your baby set their own schedule, especially as they grow and adjust to a more regular feeding routine. Don’t be surprised if your little one wants to nurse every hour for the first couple days! This helps stimulate a strong milk supply tailored to your newborn’s breastfeeding needs. As your breast milk comes in, you can expect your baby’s hunger to subside, and you might only nurse every 2 to 3 hours, or 8 to 12 times a day.

How to Tell That Your Baby Is Hungry

Timing is also important when it comes to breastfeeding. If your baby is crying, it’s a late sign of hunger, and an unhappy baby may have trouble latching on. Keep an eye out for telltale signs of hunger, which include when your baby

  • looks alert

  • bends their arms

  • closes their fist

  • brings fingers to their mouth

  • makes sucking motions.

When your baby is full, they’ll close their eyes and relax their arms and legs.

How to Know Your Baby Is Getting Enough Milk

Now that you know when and how to start breastfeeding, you might wonder if there are any signs that your baby is or isn’t getting enough to eat. There are a few ways to tell, so pay close attention to your baby during and after feedings. First, if you hear them swallow while nursing, you know your baby is getting milk. And if they fall asleep after a meal, they’re definitely full! Other signs that your newborn is getting enough to eat include your baby

  • producing between four to eight wet diapers and three to four loose stools a day during the first month or so

  • producing pale yellow urine, not a dark orange or dark yellow shade

  • appearing content and happy for about one to three hours after each feeding.

Breastfeeding for Beginners: Dos and Don’ts

Other common questions for first-time breastfeeding parents include what you can or can’t do while lactating or if you need to adopt a special breastfeeding diet to make sure your baby is getting all the nutrients they need. While you’re nursing, observing a few dos and don’ts will help support your health and the health of your breastfeeding baby, ensuring they get all the benefits that breast milk provides:

  • Do pay attention to your diet. Around 450 to 500 calories are needed per day to support your body as it makes milk for your baby. You'll need about 2,500 daily calories if your weight falls into the normal range.

  • Do eat fish if you want but avoid some types. If you want to eat fish or seafood, you can add it to your meals about two to three times a week—but avoid fish with high levels of mercury or pollutants, such as swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and bigeye tuna.

  • Do consider vitamins. Take a prenatal multivitamin while breastfeeding if your healthcare provider recommends it.

  • Do stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids while breastfeeding.

  • Don’t consume too much caffeine. In the first few days after your baby is born, you may want to consume little to no caffeine while nursing. A moderate amount, approximately 200 mg per day, later on, is unlikely to affect your baby. Remember that caffeine is found not only in coffee and tea but in chocolate and sodas, too.

  • Don’t take medications without checking first. Ask your healthcare provider about taking medication while breastfeeding, including birth control. Most medications are safe to take, but some can pass on to your baby in low doses through breast milk.

  • Don’t smoke. Avoid smoking, as secondhand smoke can harm infants and decrease your milk supply.

Pumping Breast Milk: What You Need to Know

Once your milk supply is established in your body, typically around three or four weeks after delivery, you can start expressing and storing your breast milk in advance. This way, your baby will still get the benefits of breastfeeding if you need to be away from them, such as for work or if you have to travel overnight. And with paced bottle feeding, you can mimic breastfeeding with a bottle.

How to Choose the Right Method For You

You can express milk manually or with a breast pump that works manually or electronically. Since milk production is based on supply and demand, the more you feed or pump, the more milk you’ll produce, so it’s best to express your milk regularly. To help you make your decision, consider the following when deciding between manual expressing and pumping:

  • Manually expressing milk can be effective once mastered but requires practice. You can ask a delivery nurse, a lactation consultant, or your healthcare provider to show you how to do it. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes much easier.

  • A breast pump—especially an electric pump—makes the process easier and stimulates the breasts more effectively. But you’ll need to be sure you use a high-quality pump that expresses your milk efficiently to avoid any pain, irritation, lowered milk supply, and breast engorgement.

Tips for Expressing and Pumping Breast Milk

If you’re new to the breast-pumping world or want to try your hand (literally) at manually expressing breast milk, follow these tips to make the process easier:

  • Practice. Reduce stress and worry by practicing with your breast pump before using it, especially if you plan to breastfeed while working and will pump at work.

  • Pump often. This will keep your milk production up, and you can even pump both breasts simultaneously. Consider pumping right after a feeding, as your let-down reflex is in action, and you can start to create a nice supply in your fridge!

  • Feed your baby on demand. If you notice your baby is hungry, try to breastfeed right away. This will also mean you’ll have more milk supply when you pump.

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated will make it easier for your body to produce milk.

When Do Babies Stop Breastfeeding?

Healthcare professionals recommend exclusive breastfeeding (meaning feeding breast milk only, no formula) for at least the first six months of your baby’s life. However, there are still many benefits of breastfeeding after 6 months, including long-term benefits. Many experts extend their recommendation for exclusive breastfeeding to 1 year of age. That’s because breast milk contains the exact balance of nutrients that your baby needs and continues to enhance their immune system as they consume it. At 6 months, you can start introducing solids into your child’s diet, with breast milk continuing to be a major source of nutrition during this first year. Because of this transition to solids, your baby might initiate the weaning process sometime between 6 months and 1 year. There’s no right or wrong time for babies to stop breastfeeding, but it can be a good choice to make the switch when your baby indicates that it’s time. Some signs that your little one is ready to transition from breast to cup include:

  • Your baby gradually turns away from your nipple or the bottle

  • Your little one seems distracted or restless during nursing sessions

  • Your child prefers solids and can drink from a cup independently.

How to Breastfeed: Additional Tips and Kind Reminders

You may need a little help getting started, especially if it’s your first time nursing. Here are a few additional tips to make breastfeeding a little easier:

  • Sit comfortably. It helps to be as comfortable as possible while breastfeeding. Make sure you have a supportive chair like a rocking chair or nursery glider, and try relaxation techniques like deep breathing.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The first time you breastfeed your baby, ask for help. A maternity nurse or a lactation consultant can help you find the best breastfeeding position and help your newborn latch on correctly.

  • Consider keeping your baby in the same room with you. For the first six months, have your baby sleep in the same room as you, in their own crib or bassinet, so you can nurse them more easily when hungry.

  • Try not to offer a pacifier too soon. You might want to hold off on giving your newborn a pacifier, which may interfere with breastfeeding, as the sucking motion is different than with a nipple. Experts say to avoid using a pacifier for several weeks after giving birth so that you can establish a good breastfeeding routine. Explore our guide on pacifier use in our article "When to Introduce a Pacifier to Your Baby".

  • Take care of your nipples. Breastfeeding can sometimes lead to cracked, irritated, or sore nipples, but a proper latch can help you minimize these common issues. While bathing, try to avoid using soap on your nipples. If you’re experiencing dry, cracked nipples, you can use purified lanolin after each feeding to soothe them and help retain moisture. Consult your healthcare provider if you see any signs or symptoms of mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue, including flu-like symptoms and breast soreness.

  • Use a warm compress to encourage the let-down reflex. If you’re having trouble with milk flow—the let-down reflex—or expressing while breastfeeding, try applying a warm cloth or compress to your breast for several minutes before feeding.

  • Connect with your community. Sometimes, the best breastfeeding tips and support come from your friends, family, and other parents in your community. Check with your town or city and your healthcare provider, as there might be breastfeeding classes or support groups you could attend. Or, find a group of fellow parents who can help you conquer any challenges.

The Bottom Line

Breastfeeding is a natural process, but it can take time for both you and your baby to get into a successful routine. Many moms need a little help at some point, but the effort might be worth it, considering all the benefits of breastfeeding for you and your baby. Breastfed babies tend to have a lower risk for common ailments like allergies, digestive issues, ear infections, eczema, and asthma. Your baby will also be at a lower risk for SIDS, hospitalization due to respiratory illness, diabetes, and certain cancers, like leukemia. As for the mom, the benefits of breastfeeding include the release of the “love hormone” to help you feel better after delivery and bond with your baby, plus a lower risk of certain cancers and diabetes. Consult your healthcare provider with any questions or if you need assistance or support with breastfeeding. Now that you’re on this new adventure with your little one, you can earn rewards for future diaper purchases with our Pampers Club app!

How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.