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. Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by WHO as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth.
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.
WHO strongly recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life. At six months, other foods should complement breastfeeding for up to two years or more. In addition:
breastfeeding should begin within an hour of birth;
breastfeeding should be "on demand", as often as the child wants day and night; and
bottles or pacifiers should be avoided.
Health benefits for infants
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 sustenance.
Benefits for mothers
Breastfeeding also benefits mothers. The practice when done exclusively often induces a lack of menstruation, which is a natural (though not fail-safe) method of birth control. It reduces risks of breast and ovarian cancer later in life, helps women return to their pre-pregnancy weight faster, and lowers rates of obesity.
Long-term benefits for children
Beyond the immediate benefits for children, breastfeeding contributes to a lifetime of good health. Adults who were breastfed as babies often have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol, as well as lower rates of overweight, obesity and type-2 diabetes. There is evidence that people who were breastfed perform better in intelligence tests.
Why not infant formula?
Infant formula does not contain the antibodies found in breast milk and is linked to some risks, such as water-borne diseases that arise from mixing powdered formula with unsafe water (many families lack access to clean water). Malnutrition can result from over-diluting formula to "stretch" supplies. Further, frequent feedings maintain the 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.
HIV and breastfeeding
For HIV-positive mothers, WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months unless replacement feeding is:
acceptable (socially welcome)
feasible (facilities and help are available to prepare formula)
affordable (formula can be purchased for six months)
sustainable (feeding can be sustained for six months)
safe (formula is prepared with safe water and in hygienic conditions).
Regulating breast-milk substitutes
An international code to regulate the marketing of breast-milk substitutes was adopted in 1981. It calls for:
all formula labels and information to state the benefits of breastfeeding and the health risks of substitutes;
no promotion of breast-milk substitutes;
no free samples of substitutes to be given to pregnant women, mothers or their families; and
no distribution of free or subsidized substitutes to health workers or facilities.