While breastfeeding offers numerous benefits, it also presents many challenges. Many women find that breastfeeding is most difficult in the first weeks of the baby's life and during times of transition, which may include returning to work after maternity leave.
With the right help, most women can breastfeed successfully. However, there are also some drawbacks to consider. In this article, learn about the pros and cons of breastfeeding.
The major health organizations in the United States recommend breastfeeding due to the many benefits it offers to both women and babies. Some of the most significant pros of breastfeeding include:
Health benefits for the baby
Breast milk is the ideal food for babies. It is rich in antibodies and fatty acids, which support the development of an infant and their immune system.
In the early days of breastfeeding, a newborn baby primarily gets colostrum, a thick liquid rich in antibodies. Colostrum sustains the baby and supports their immune system until the regular breast milk comes in.
When a baby breastfeeds, its saliva interacts with the woman's nipples. Backwash from the baby provides the woman's body with important clues about the baby's health and development.
This ability of breast milk to adapt to a baby's needs offers numerous health benefits. These include a lower risk of:
- necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a potentially fatal stomach disease that primarily affects premature babies
- ear infections
- colds and infections, especially respiratory infections
- sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- stomach problems, such as diarrhea and vomiting
- becoming a picky eater
Health benefits for the woman breastfeeding
Most breastfeeding women experience lactational amenorrhea, which means that their periods stop for at least some of the time that they are breastfeeding.
For women hoping to avoid pregnancy, this can be a significant benefit. Women with painful periods or endometriosis may also welcome the break.
Some researchers have suggested that women who do not breastfeed may be more likely to experience postpartum depression. However, the reason for this is unclear, and researchers have not proven that breastfeeding improves mental health.
It is possible that hormonal shifts relating to breastfeeding may offer mental health benefits, but more research is necessary to confirm this.
The benefits of breastfeeding extend well beyond infancy. The long-term benefits of breastfeeding for babies include a reduced risk of:
- type 1 and type 2 diabetes
- high cholesterol
- certain cancers, including childhood leukemia
- heart disease
Breastfeeding may also be beneficial for cognitive development and promote better performance on intelligence tests.
The long-term benefits of breastfeeding for women include a reduced likelihood of:
Breastfeeding does not require a financial investment. It is possible to breastfeed without any special supplies or equipment. For people concerned about the costs of raising a child, breastfeeding may offer significant savings.
Women who breastfeed may miss fewer days of work to care for unwell infants, potentially reducing the risk of lost income due to unpaid sick leave.
Even if women decide to invest heavily in nursing supplies or require the assistance of a lactation consultant, they can still save money due to the cost of formula.
Ease and convenience
It is possible to breastfeed a baby anywhere. There is no need to warm up a bottle, pack formula, or make any other preparations. Public breastfeeding is legal in all U.S. states.
Once they have mastered breastfeeding, it is possible for women to do other tasks concurrently, such as working, talking on the phone, or watching a movie.
Bonding and easy soothing
In addition to providing nourishment, breastfeeding can be a source of comfort. A 2016 Cochrane review found that breastfeeding could help babies deal with the pain of vaccinations.
Some women find that breastfeeding helps them bond with their babies. The ability to soothe a baby with breastfeeding may make some women feel more confident in their parenting.
Breastfeeding can take time to master, and there can be extra barriers in place that can make it difficult, dangerous, or impossible to breastfeed.
Some of the challenges and cons of breastfeeding include:
Adjustment period and pain
The early weeks of breastfeeding are often the most difficult. Some women experience issues with milk supply, which can be too high or too low. Others have painful or cracked nipples. Some women develop mastitis, a potentially severe breast infection.
Women learning to breastfeed are also adjusting to life with a newborn, which inadequate sleep and the constant demands of caring for the baby can make challenging.
Many are also recovering from giving birth. The exhaustion and possible difficulties of childbirth recovery can make breastfeeding more difficult.
The benefits may be exaggerated
The benefits of breastfeeding, especially the cognitive benefits, may be exaggerated. Many studies fail to control for specific traits of breastfeeding women.
For instance, some research shows that breastfeeding tends to be more common among women who have a higher level of education. So the apparent boost in a breastfed baby's intelligence could be from having a more educated mother or caregiver rather than from the breast milk.
Loss of bodily autonomy
Breastfeeding, especially exclusive breastfeeding, ties a woman to her baby.
Some women may feel that they have lost ownership of their bodies.
This loss of bodily autonomy can affect their self-esteem, sex life, and body image.
Women who pump breast milk may also feel uncomfortable with this process.
Lack of social support
While medical organizations generally support breastfeeding, the community often fails to provide women with adequate support.
A lack of support can make breastfeeding feel isolating and needlessly difficult. Some of the issues breastfeeding women may face include:
- judgment from friends, family members, and even strangers who oppose breastfeeding
- pressure to stop breastfeeding sooner than they would like
- lack of support from a spouse or partner
- inadequate sleep
- significant loss of time
- shaming and judgment for breastfeeding in public
- lack of breastfeeding advice from medical professionals
- confusion about which activities are safe to do when breastfeeding
Uneven distribution of parenting work
The task of feeding a baby can fall exclusively to the person breastfeeding, especially if the baby will not take a bottle or another caregiver does not bottle-feed the baby.
If a partner or another caregiver does not offer help with other tasks, such as household chores, changing diapers, preparing bottles, or getting up at night with the baby, breastfeeding can be exhausting.
The unequal distribution of parenting work can lead to resentment in a relationship and leave the person breastfeeding with little or no time of their own.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there is no upper limit for how long to breastfeed an infant.
There is no evidence that extended breastfeeding is harmful, although it may not be the cultural norm in some places.
The AAP recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a baby's life. Exclusive breastfeeding means no additional nutrition, such as solid foods, juice, or water. After the 6 months, the woman can continue breastfeeding as she introduces solid foods to the baby's diet.
With adequate support from loved ones and medical professionals, it is possible to overcome the challenges of breastfeeding. Women can also get help from a lactation consultant for any issues with milk supply.
As women's bodies adjust after delivery, some will master the skill of breastfeeding. For others, breastfeeding continues to be difficult. The decision to breastfeed is up to the individual and should be free of guilt or judgment.
Some breast milk is better than none at all, so people who want to supplement with formula should consider that even a little breast milk can be beneficial.
A healthy baby ultimately requires a happy, healthy mother or caregiver. Someone who is overwhelmed by the demands of breastfeeding, or spends all of her time pumping or trying to increase her milk supply, should not feel pressure to continue.
There are many ways to be an excellent mother or caregiver, and women should choose the feeding option that works for them and their baby.