Research on Breastfeeding

Last Editorial Review: 12/10/2004

Breastfeeding, sometimes called "nursing," can be a convenient and inexpensive way for a mother to feed her child. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Policy Statement on Breast-feeding, women who don't have health problems, like HIV, should exclusively breast-feed their infants for at least the first six months of life. AAP suggests that women try to breast-feed for the first 12 months of life because of the benefits to both mother and baby.

If a mother stops breast-feeding before the child is a year old, then she should feed her infant iron-fortified, commercially available formula. Health care providers advise women not to give their infants cow's milk until the child is at least a year old.

Breast-feeding offers many benefits to the baby. For instance, breast milk provides the right balance of nutrients to help an infant grow into a strong and healthy toddler. Some of the nutrients in breast milk also help protect an infant against some common childhood illnesses and infections, such as diarrhea and certain lung infections.

Some recent NICHD-supported research also suggests that breast milk contains important amino acids, protein building blocks, that help an infant's brain develop. Specifically, researchers discovered that two amino acids present in breast milk, which are currently not added to infant formula commercially available in the United States, may help infants to increase their cognitive skills. Infants who were fed formula with the two amino acids added scored higher on intelligence tests than infants whose formula lacked the nutrients. Further research is now underway to see whether adding these amino acids to infant formula is safe in the long-term. For more information on these and other findings, read the Institute's news releases about breast-feeding.

Breast-feeding also benefits the mother. In response to the baby's sucking, the mother's body releases a hormone that makes the uterus to contract. Many mothers also reap emotional benefits from breast-feeding because of the closeness of this interaction with the baby. Many societies and cultures also encourage mothers to breast-feed, which can offer support to a new mother.

Even though breast-feeding is a natural process, it's not always easy. Many health care providers suggest that women work with a lactation counselor or lactation specialist to learn how to breast-feed and to learn what is involved with breast-feeding. Many health centers, clinics, and hospitals have lactation counselors on staff. Ask your health care provider for more information about getting help with breast-feeding. Even with help, though, some women still have trouble breast-feeding.

In certain situations, health care providers advise a woman not to breast-feed. For instance:

  • A woman with certain health conditions, such as HIV or active tuberculosis, should not breast-feed because she risks transmitting the infection to her infant through her breast milk.
  • Women who actively use drugs or do not control their alcohol intake, or who have a history of these situations, may also be advised not to breast-feed.
  • Certain medicines, including some mood stabilizers and migraine medicines can also pass through the breast milk and cause harm to the infant.
  • Women with certain chronic illnesses may be advised not to breast-feed, or to take special steps to ensure their own health while breast-feeding. For example, women who have diabetes may need to eat slightly more food while they breast-feed, to prevent their blood sugar levels from dropping.
  • Women who have had breast surgery in the past may face some difficulties in breast-feeding.

If you have any health conditions, or you are taking any medications or over-the-counter supplements, you should discuss breast-feeding with your health care provider.

Source: National Institutes of Health (

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