Breastfeeding provides an infant with the best nutritional start to life and provides all of their nutritional needs in their first six months of life.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for babies to 6 months of age, and then for breastfeeding to continue alongside complementary food until 12-24 months of age and beyond.
Breastmilk is enriched with all the essential nutrients and components infants need for proper growth and development. These include:
- Proteins – which also includes immunoglobulins (IgA) which provide immune support for an infant
- Fats – Essential fatty acids and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids
- Carbohydrates – The principal carbohydrate of human milk is lactose
- Minerals, vitamins, and trace elements
- Non-nutritional components – digestive enzymes and growth factors
Colostrum is the first breastmilk produced between days 1-7. Although it is only produced in small amounts, colostrum is rich in protein and antibodies (immune system proteins), which are important in protecting your baby against infection. Colostrum is also a rich source of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A and E and minerals and assists in the maturation of the gut to improve overall digestion.1
As milk production increases, the fat and energy content of the milk increases and is readily digestible, which helps to support rapid growth. This fat includes both saturated and unsaturated fats, as well as cholesterol, an important constituent of brain and nerve tissue. Breastfeeding may help to reduce the risk of the following:2,3
- Gastrointestinal infections (e.g. diarrhoea and vomiting)
- Atopic disease and some allergies (including eczema and asthma)
- Obesity in childhood and later life
- Diabetes in childhood or later life
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
Breastfeeding is not only beneficial for infants, but also their mothers. Breastfeeding provides an opportunity for skin-to-skin contact which helps develop a strong mother-infant bond, which has been shown to reduce the risk of postnatal depression. Breastfeeding also helps with recovery after giving birth, reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancer4 and it may act as a contraceptive however, it is encouraged that you discuss your individual needs with your health professional.
What support services are available?
While breastfeeding is a natural act, it is also a learned behaviour which can pose its many challenges. If bottle feeding becomes a consideration for your baby, this may impact on the supply of your own breast milk, which makes reversing the decision not to breast feed difficult. Other factors such as cost, and convenience are important considerations in the choice of feeding for your baby. There are several active support services that can help in establishing and sustaining breastfeeding practices which include local maternal and child health services, qualified lactation consultants, medical professionals and peak bodies such as the Australian Breastfeeding Association.
- Stewart, Rowan, “General Paediatric Nutrition and Dietetics” (2012)
- The public health benefits of breastfeeding. (2017). Perspectives in Public Health, 137(6), 307-308. Available here.
- Infant feeding guidelines, National Health and Medical Research Council, Department of Health and Ageing, Available here.
- Holmes, Alison Volpe, Heather G. Jones, and Brock C. Christensen. “Breastfeeding and Cancer Prevention.” (2017).