What Is Breastfeeding?

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Breastfeeding, also called nursing and chestfeeding, is feeding a baby human milk from the breast. Usually, breast milk is given directly from the breast. However, it may also be pumped, stored, and offered from a bottle. 

Some people breastfeed exclusively. That means their baby does not receive formula or other foods. Others breastfeed partially, which means that their baby may also receive formula or solid foods. 

"Chestfeeding" is a term used by some transmasculine and nonbinary parents to describe the act of feeding their baby human milk.

This article explains the different types, benefits, complications, and ways to manage difficulties with breastfeeding. 

Person with brown skin and black hair breastfeeds a baby

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Types of Breastfeeding

Some people feed their babies only breast milk. Others combine breastfeeding with formula or solid foods. You may find that when your baby is very young, you exclusively breastfeed, but then later, you may partially breastfeed. 

How Common Is Breastfeeding?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 84% of infants in the United States are breastfed at some point. However, as time goes on, that figure drops drastically. For instance, by 6 months of age, 57% of infants are still breastfeeding, and by 1 year, 35% receive breast milk.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding until a baby is 6 months old, it’s important to remember that any amount of breast milk a baby receives is beneficial.

Exclusive Breastfeeding

Exclusive breastfeeding describes the act of only feeding a baby breast milk. An exclusively breastfed baby does not receive supplemental formula or solid foods. 

In the United States, 46% of babies are exclusively breastfed through 3 months, and 26% are exclusively breastfed through 6 months.

Exclusive breastfeeding might look different for different people. For instance, the term "exclusive breastfeeding" can describe any of the following:

  • A baby who only receives breast milk directly from the breast
  • A baby who nurses at the breast and receives pumped breast milk from a bottle 
  • A baby who only receives pumped breast milk from a bottle

AAP recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. After that time, you can introduce solid foods. The AAP recommends continuing to breastfeed until a baby is at least 1 year old, and then after that, as long as it's mutually desired by the parent and infant.

Breast milk is the ideal nutrition for human infants. However, the AAP recommends vitamin D supplements for breastfeeding infants.

Partial Breastfeeding

Partial breastfeeding describes a situation in which a baby is fed breast milk along with formula or solid foods. Some people partially breastfeed from the beginning, while others transition to partial breastfeeding as their baby begins to eat solid foods. 

In the United States, 19% of newborns receive formula supplementation in their first two days of life.

Some reasons parents choose partial breastfeeding rather than exclusive breastfeeding include:

  • Difficulty breastfeeding
  • Returning to work and not wanting to pump, or not having access to a convenient place to pump
  • Wanting a break

In most workplaces, women have the right to pump at work. The federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers law requires certain employers to provide breastfeeding moms time and space to pump. Specifically, this means:

  • A private, functional space that isn't a bathroom
  • A reasonable break time to pump each time you need to express milk while you're working

This law covers most hourly and some salaried employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). If this doesn't apply to you, your state may have laws that protect your right to pump at work.

You have these rights for one year after your baby's birth.

Benefits and Risks

There are many benefits and very few risks associated with breastfeeding. The main risks are breastfeeding-related complications or difficulties. Often, these can be managed with proper support. 

Benefits

Breastfeeding benefits extend to both the breastfeeding parent and the infant. For infants, breast milk is uniquely designed to meet a human infant’s nutritional needs. 

Human milk changes as a baby grows. For example, the first milk a baby receives is called colostrum. It is also referred to as “liquid gold” because of the color of the milk (yellowish) and because of the potent immune benefits.

By your baby’s third to fifth day, your milk transitions to mature milk. This milk contains the perfect mixture of nutrients and antibodies for your growing baby.

The benefits of breastfeeding to a baby include reduced risk of:

Research has found that if 90% of U.S. babies were exclusively breastfed for six months, nearly 1,000 infant deaths could be prevented.

In addition, for breastfeeding parents, the risk of the following health conditions is lower:

Risks

For most people, breastfeeding is a healthy and safe choice. However, in certain situations, breastfeeding can pose risks, which can include:

  • Breast infection: Mastitis is an infection that can occur in the breast when you are breastfeeding. It is caused by a plugged milk duct. Mastitis is treatable and does not require that you stop breastfeeding. However, if it is not addressed promptly, it can be serious. Contact your doctor if you notice redness, swelling, or pain in the area or if you have a fever.
  • Allergies: Some infants have food allergies. Sometimes the allergens causing allergies are passed through breast milk. If a baby has a food allergy, the breastfeeding parent must work closely with their doctor to pinpoint the allergen and eliminate it. Other options may include giving the baby hypoallergenic formula
  • Breastfeeding difficulties: Some parents struggle with breastfeeding, especially at first. This can lead to a baby not getting enough to eat or to weaning prematurely. Be sure to contact your doctor if you are having trouble with your baby's latch or your milk supply or if you are experiencing any pain associated with breastfeeding. They will put you in touch with a qualified lactation consultant who can help you through your difficulties. It is also often helpful to seek support from a lactation consultant early on.

Challenges

Many challenges can accompany breastfeeding. However, most of the time, with adequate support, parents can work through breastfeeding difficulties. Some of the more common breastfeeding problems include:

  • Breast infection
  • Breast and nipple size, which can make it difficult for a baby to latch onto the breast
  • Depression
  • Engorgement, where the breasts are excessively full of milk
  • Exhaustion
  • Feeling judged
  • Feeling “touched out” (being overwhelmed by physical closeness)
  • Frequent feedings and growth spurts
  • Low (or perceived low) milk supply
  • Nursing strike, when a baby refuses to nurse
  • Plugged milk duct
  • Sore nipples

Summary

Breastfeeding is the act of giving your baby breast milk. It can be done exclusively, when the baby consumes only breast milk, or partially, when the baby gets breast milk and formula or solid foods at the same time.

Breastfeeding has many benefits for the baby, including reducing the risk of asthma, diabetes, ear infections, and eczema, to name a few. However, there are also challenges associated with breastfeeding, such as engorgement and the need for more frequent feeding.

A Word From Verywell

If you are breastfeeding or thinking about breastfeeding, you may be feeling overwhelmed. That's understandable. There is a lot of information and a lot of pressure around parenting.

The AAP recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby's life and then at least until your baby turns 1. But remember, any amount of breastmilk you can give your baby is beneficial.

Be sure to set yourself up with a proper support network. For example, locate the contact information for a lactation consultant in case you need one. And connect with others who have breastfed, like friends, family members, and breastfeeding groups. They can be a good source of information and encouragement.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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