One of the most important choices you need to make as a new mum is how you will feed your baby. It’s a good idea to have a think about this well ahead of time, so you’ll be ready once your baby is born.

What are the options?

Experts recommend that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life. When the baby is ready, at about 6 months, but not before 4 months, solid foods are introduced. Breastfeeding is continued alongside solid foods until baby is 12 months of age, and then for as long as the mother and baby desire.

If an infant is not breastfed, commercial infant formulas (baby formula you buy from the supermarket or chemist) should be used instead of breast milk.

Why breastfeed?

Breast milk is the most natural food for human babies because it:

  • provides all the nutrients your baby needs in the first six months of life
  • satisfies hunger and thirst, so no extra water is needed
  • protects your baby against infections and diseases
  • reduces the risk of allergy in your baby
  • is always fresh, clean and safe, and at the right temperature.

Breastfeeding is good for you too, because it:

  • is free, and always available whenever you need to feed your baby
  • reduces your risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis
  • uses up 500 calories per day
  • helps your uterus return to normal after childbirth
  • prolongs the amount of time before you get your period again
  • helps to build a loving bond between you and your baby.

In Australia today, most mothers begin by breastfeeding their baby. Only about half are still breastfeeding at six months, and only about one quarter make it to 12 months. There are many reasons for this, including a lack of support for breastfeeding in many workplaces.

The good news is that any amount of breastfeeding is beneficial for your baby.

Can health problems prevent you from breastfeeding?

There are some very rare situations where breastfeeding should be completely avoided. One example is when a mother is HIV positive or a baby is born with a rare metabolic disorder such as Galatosemia that prevents their body from processing some parts of the breast milk properly.

Usually breastfeeding can go ahead even if the mother or baby has an illness. However, it may be necessary to avoid breastfeeding if a mother has certain active infections (such as HIV, tuberculosis or herpes type 1 infection) or she is receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer.

For more information, talk to your doctor, midwife, or lactation consultant.

What about infant formula?

If a mother cannot breastfeed, chooses not to breastfeed, or has to stop breastfeeding temporarily, an infant formula should be used.

Infant formula can be bought at most supermarkets and chemists. It is usually comes as a tin of powder that you prepare by carefully adding it to the right amount of water.

Modern infant formulas have been developed using breast milk as a reference, so they have similar (but not identical) levels of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. There are some components of breast milk that it is impossible to copy in a formula, including living cells and enzymes that help protect your baby from illness and infections.

Legally, every infant formula sold in Australia has to contain enough nutrients to support healthy growth in a baby. So, as long as you follow the directions and prepare infant formula correctly, you can rest assured that your baby is getting enough nutrition.

Pros and cons of formula feeding

Advantages of formula feeding include:

  • it provides an option in cases where a mother cannot breastfeed
  • it provides an opportunity for other members of the family to get involved in feeding and holding your baby
  • it can give you a chance to rest
  • you have greater flexibility to return to work.

Disadvantages of formula feeding include:

  • formula does not have all of the same health benefits for you and your baby as breast milk
  • it can be expensive
  • mixing the formula is time consuming
  • if it’s not mixed correctly it can cause constipation or other illness in your baby.

What about using both feeding options?

After they have been breastfeeding for a while, some women use a method called combined or mixed feeding, where they breastfeed some of the time and bottle feed (with expressed breast milk or infant formula) some of the time.

It can be a good compromise if you need to go back to work, but you don’t want to give up breastfeeding.

Skipping breastfeeds can reduce your milk supply, so it is important to seek advice from your lactation consultant or child and maternal health nurse if you plan to try this method of feeding.

Don’t worry!

Whatever method of feeding you end up using, whether it’s breastfeeding or formula feeding, your baby will be receiving the nutrition that they need for healthy growth.

Just give them plenty of love, and watch them thrive.

Sources: Australian Breastfeeding Association (Breastfeeding FAQs) . Opens in a new window. National Health and Medical Research Council (Infant Feeding Guidelines) . Opens in a new window.