By Raising Children Network
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Breastmilk is the food designed by nature for babies. If you can’t breastfeed, formula is the only acceptable substitute. For their first six months, babies need nothing other than breastmilk or formula to eat or drink.

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The importance of breastfeeding

Breastmilk is exactly suited to your baby’s nutritional needs and protects from infection, illnesses and disorders. Breastfeeding is convenient and free. There’s no need to buy formula, sterilise equipment, mix powder, carry clean water or worry about where you can warm up your bottles.

Breastfeeding is a skill that is learned

Breastfeeding is a unique chance for you to snuggle with your baby. This skin-to-skin contact can even help your newborn’s brain development.

Most women can breastfeed without too much difficulty. Problems can be solved with the right information and support.

Although breastfeeding can feel strange or uncomfortable at first, it starts to feel natural very soon. When you do get the hang of it, you can feel an incredible sense of accomplishment – some women even say it makes them feel confident.

For more information, you can read and print out our illustrated guides to breastfeeding techniques and breastfeeding positions. For mothers who aren’t breastfeeding, you can find information about bottle-feeding below.

Breastfeeding challenges

Breastfeeding doesn’t always go smoothly. It takes learning and practice by you and your baby! Even when you and your baby are getting it right, it can be uncomfortable in the beginning. After all, your nipples need to get used to the new sensation of your baby’s sucking.

Breastfeeding problems can include sore nipples and mastitis. Problems can usually be sorted out. It’s a good idea to speak to an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor, lactation consultant or child health nurse promptly, as they can advise you on how to relieve the symptoms. If you have mastitis, see your doctor.

Reflux, where your newborn spits up a large volume of milk every feed, is common in the first six months. Reflux should only cause concern if your baby isn’t gaining enough weight or is very unsettled and in pain. Visit your local maternal child health centre to check baby’s weight. If you live in a rural area, weigh your baby once a week and call your local doctor or nurse for advice.

When expressing breastmilk it helps to be relaxed. Have a glass of water ready and settle into a comfortable, private place.

For several reasons, babies are sometimes given supplementary feeds in addition to breastmilk. It’s a good idea to check that there’s a real need for more food before supplementing an unsettled baby.

Staying healthy while breastfeeding

Your body is busy producing high-quality breastmilk for your baby. You might notice that you often feel sleepy when breastfeeding (almost like when you were pregnant) and need to eat well. Some breastfeeding mothers notice their own body fat disappearing as it is used up in the process.

Remember, what you put into your body can get passed through your breastmilk to your baby. But your diet doesn’t have to be perfect to make good breastmilk!

  • Making milk uses up lots of fluid. If you’re thirsty, drink plenty of tap water to avoid dehydration. (Tap water has added fluoride and helps your baby start building extra protective enamel in his developing teeth.) Try to avoid mineral water, which can be high in salt.
  • Enjoy eating a wide variety of healthy foods, including fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meat, chicken, fish, milk, yoghurt and grains.
  • Alcohol and nicotine pass freely into your breastmilk, so it’s best to avoid drinking and smoking. If you plan to have a drink, schedule it two hours (per drink) before breastfeeding again. If you must smoke, protect your baby by always smoking outside, and don’t smoke for an hour before feeding. You might like to read more in our article Second-hand smoke and your child.
  • Go easy on drinks containing caffeine, such as coffee, regular tea and cola, and try to avoid ‘energy’ drinks with caffeine and/or guarana – these can all cause irritability in babies. You could try alternatives such as non-caffeinated teas.
  • Some drugs can cause serious illness in babies. If you need to take drugs or medication, check with your doctor about what medications are safe while breastfeeding, and about the timing of medications around breastfeeds.
It’s important you look after yourself – this will help you be able to care for your child as best you can. You might like to read our articles on looking after yourself as a new parent.

About bottle-feeding

If you can’t breastfeed, one option is to express your breastmilk for your baby. If that’s not possible either, it’s comforting to know that today’s milk formulas provide the basic building blocks of growth. Infant formulas are the only safe alternative to breastmilk.

Hold, cuddle and talk to your newborn while bottle-feeding your expressed breastmilk or formula. This will help your baby develop and grow. Even though your baby might not seem responsive at first, babies’ brains are developing at lightning speed. They depend on early contact with their parents to develop to their full potential.

It’s important to stay with your newborn during bottle-feeding. Don’t prop up a bottle with your baby. This can cause choking.

If you’re breastfeeding and are vitamin D deficient, consider supplementing your breastfeed with fortified formula. 

Preparing formula

  • Always prepare formula according to the instructions. Use the correct number of scoops of powder to avoid underfeeding, dehydration and constipation.
  • Don’t add anything to the formula. Adding baby cereal or starch to thicken formula doesn’t help with gas or sleeping. It can interfere with feeding.
Our articles on bottle-feeding and formula and how to bottle-feed will give you all the facts on preparing formula and sterilising baby bottles.
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  • Newsletter snippet: Newborn nutrition: in a nutshell

    By Raising Children Network

    Breastmilk is the food nature has designed for your newborn baby. She won’t need any other food or drink until she’s six months old.

    Breastfeeding is important because:

    • Breastmilk is exactly suited to your baby’s nutritional needs.
    • It provides protection from infection, illness and disorders.
    • It might also provide protection for the mother against osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and breast cancer.
    • It’s convenient and free.
    • The skin-to-skin contact can even help your baby’s brain development.

    Breastfeeding doesn’t always come naturally – it takes learning and practice by both of you!

    Initial discomfort is common but very soon breastfeeding starts to feel natural. When you do get the hang of it, you can feel an incredible sense of accomplishment

    Remember to eat healthily as what you put into your body can get passed through your breastmilk to your baby. However, your diet doesn’t have to be perfect to make good breastmilk!

    Infant formula is the only safe alternative when breastmilk is not an option.

    • Follow the instructions.
    • Never add anything to the formula.
    • Stay with your baby while feeding to prevent choking.

    This article is an extract only. For more information visit

    Sourced from the Raising Children Network's comprehensive and quality-assured Australian parenting website

  • Last Updated 07-12-2011
  • Last Reviewed 23-02-2011
  • Acknowledgements

    We acknowledge the assistance of the Australian Breastfeeding Association in reviewing this article in January 2011.