breast feeding

Last reviewed 07/2023

Mother’s breast milk is the best form of nutrition for an infant (1).

  • it provides babies with a complete source of nutrition needed for the first 6 months of life which includes fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals as well as bioactive factors which provide short-term and long-term  health and development  benefits to the infant’s immature immune system
    • studies from developing countries show that infants who are not breastfed are 6  to 10 times more likely to die in the first months of life than infants who are breastfed with pneumonia and diarrhea being responsible for a majority
  • for mothers, both short- and long-term health benefits of breastfeeding have been implicated e.g - reduced risk of post-partum haemorrhage, breast and ovarian cancer (2)

A variety of neurohormonal mechanisms facilitate breast feeding:

  • during pregnancy - human placental lactogen, oestrogens and progesterone prepare the breasts for lactation.
  • milk production - suckling stimulates the release of prolactin from the anterior pituitary gland. Prolactin is important in initiating milk secretion and in maintaining milk production after birth
  • milk ejection - suckling stimulates the release of oxytocin from the posterior pituitary gland. Oxytocin is responsible for the ejection - let down - of milk by acting on the myeloepithelial cells that surround the alveoli and ductules (2).

The WHO recommends exclusive breast feeding (for the first 6 months (180 days) of an infant’s life with supplemental breast feeding continuing for two years and beyond (2).

  • "Exclusive breastfeeding" is defined as no other food or drink, not even water, except breast milk (including milk expressed or from a wet nurse) for 6 months of life, but allows the infant to receive ORS, drops and syrups (vitamins, minerals and medicines)
  • introduction of complementary foods is recommended at the age of 6 months to fill the energy and nutrient gap caused by excessive nutritional requirements of infants
    • it is important to continue breastfeeding even after introduction of complementary foods since breast milk continues to supply higher quality nutrients than complementary foods, and also protective factors.
  • mothers who are unable to follow these recommendations or those who choose not to do so, should be provided with the necessary support to optimize their infants nutrition (2).

Generally breastfeeding should be "on demand", as often as the child wants day and night e.g. -  whenever the baby shows signs of hunger such as increased alertness, activity, mouthing, rooting or crying (2).

  • babies feed with different frequencies, and take different amounts of milk at each feed
    • the 24 hour intake of milk varies between mother-infant pairs (from 440–1220 ml) but on average around 800 ml of milk is consumed per day throughout the first 6 months