To breastfeed or not to breastfeed? That is the question for a lot of moms. On the one hand, breastfeeding provides scientifically backed benefits that are hard to not at least consider during pregnancy or shortly after giving birth.
“We often think about how breastfeeding benefits babies by decreasing their risks of infections and hospitalizations while providing optimal nutrition for their growing brains, but breastfeeding also benefits mothers in a number of ways, including decreasing their risks of diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Susan Crowe, OB/GYN and clinical associate professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology-Maternal Fetal Medicine at Stanford University.
On the other hand, quite simply, breastfeeding isn’t for everyone.
“My husband and I both work and had very little support after the birth of our first son,” says mom of two Michelle Brandenburg, of Tampa, Florida. “I had no idea how all-consuming breastfeeding would be — especially with no breaks — so, eventually, I decided we’d all be better off with formula. I never looked back.”
Wondering if breastfeeding is right for your family? Here, moms and experts weigh in on the pros and cons of breastfeeding.
The pros of breastfeeding
There are a number of benefits for mom, baby and mom’s relationship with baby when it comes to breastfeeding.
There are health benefits in it for mom
According to University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing Professor Diane Spatz, Ph.D., who is also a Nurse Scientist for the Lactation Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, breastfeeding has a number of health benefits for mom.
“Pregnant women and moms often hear about how breastfeeding aids with postpartum weight loss — which it does — but there’s a whole host of benefits moms reap from nursing,” Spatz says.
According to Spatz, breastfeeding can have the following health benefits for moms:
Decrease in breast and ovarian cancer risk.
Decrease in endometrial cancer risk.
Decrease in chance of getting diabetes later in life.
Increase in heart health.
Decrease in chance of postpartum depression and can help with postpartum moods. (Important note: While breastfeeding produces oxytocin [the feel-good hormone], there also have been studies that have shown that women with unmet breastfeeding expectations may be at a higher risk for postpartum depression.)
Additionally, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), breastfeeding can also decrease postpartum bleeding and help accelerate “uterine involution,” the process by which your uterus returns back to its non-pregnant state.
There’s a wide range of health benefits for baby
There’s a reason the AAP advises moms to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months: Breast milk has been proven to provide a number of health advantages to baby.
“Breastfeeding influences every organ in the baby,” says Spatz. “And one of the most amazing things about breast milk is that it’s alive and constantly changing, adapting as your baby grows.”
According to Spatz, there are a number of nutrients found in breast milk that aren’t in formula.
“Breast milk has live white blood cells, stem cells, antioxidants, osteopontin, lactoferrin, human milk oligosaccharides and antibodies, all of which positively affect baby’s health,” she says.
Here are some of the health benefits of breastfeeding for baby, according to Spatz:
Better eyesight. Breastfed babies who were born preterm have less of a chance of vision impairment or even blindness.
Reduces the severity of respiratory syncytial virus infection (RSV).
Reduces risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Fewer urinary tract infections.
According to the AAP, breastfed babies also have a decreased risk of lymphoma, leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease, as well as childhood obesity.
Breastfeeding promotes bonding and attachment
In addition to the physical benefits of breastfeeding, there are psychological ones, as well.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “breastfeeding promotes more skin-to-skin contact, more holding and stroking … which [in turn] helps reduce social and behavioral problems in both children and adults.”
That said, it’s important to note that breastfeeding isn’t the only way to bond with baby during that first crucial year. Holding your baby often, gazing into their eyes and responding to their cues are all ways to promote parent-baby attachment.
It costs less
Unlike formula, which can get expensive, breastfeeding is free. And that, for some moms, is enough reason to nurse.
“To be honest, I wasn’t wild about breastfeeding,” says mom of three Jaclyn Santos, of Hazlet, New Jersey. “But not having to spend money on formula was a big motivating factor for me. Kids are expensive! It was nice to have a little extra money.”
It’s more convenient
Ask any mom who’s both breastfed and used formula, and they’ll tell you: In many instances, nursing is much more convenient. In addition to not needing to prepare and pack bottles every time you leave the house (or god forbid, attempt a vacation!), all those middle-of-the-night feedings are usually easier, as well.
“I didn’t breastfeed my first, and the middle-of-the-night feedings were kind of a pain,” says mom of three Amanda Gorman, of Los Angeles. “I had to prepare a bottle, warm it up, etc. It took so long! With my second, I nursed and it was much more convenient to nurse her in the middle of the night — I barely got out of bed!”
The cons of breastfeeding
While the pros of breastfeeding are wide-reaching, there are cons, as well. Here are a few.
The first few weeks can be difficult
The inaugural phase of any mom’s breastfeeding journey can be downright overwhelming — and it’s imperative to have help.
“The first two weeks of breastfeeding can be really hard,” says Spatz. “It’s crucial for moms seek out help if they think baby is not feeding effectively or they’re not making enough milk. Also, moms need to have support from their family and community. The only job mom should have in the beginning is to eat, sleep and breastfeed.”
Moms are always on call
When baby exclusively drinks out of a bottle, anyone can feed them, offering mom a much-needed break. But when you’re exclusively nursing, you have to be with your baby all the time — and it can be a lot.
“When you’re breastfeeding, you have to be nearby constantly,” says Spatz. “And if you’re not, you need to have access to a high- quality double electric breast pump. This requires a lot of time and effort.”
You have to watch your diet
“One drink a day is OK when you’re nursing, but you should breastfeed or pump first,” says Spatz. “Moms should never nurse when they feel tipsy, drunk or woozy.”
Additionally, some prescription drugs, including amiodarone, which is used for heart rhythm problems; antineoplastics, which treat cancer; and cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant, have been shown to affect breastfed babies when mom is taking them. Overall, though, most prescription drugs are safe, but anything you take while breastfeeding should still be discussed with your doctor.
Returning to work can be difficult
For moms who are still nursing when they return to work, taking “pump breaks” throughout the day (and having to wash the bottles and pump parts and store the milk and lug the pump) can be challenging.
“In our society, without protected paid parental leave, people may encounter significant barriers to continued breastfeeding upon returning to work,” says Crowe. “Breastfeeding requires regular feeding/milk expression in order to maintain a full milk supply. Unfortunately, many women don’t return to supportive environments that make breastfeeding in the workplace easy.”
“I had plans to breastfeed for a year, but once I went back to work at five months, I slowly started weaning,” says mom of one Jen Billows, of New York City. “Having to pump a few times a day was so time-consuming, and it was causing me to leave later than I would have, had I not been nursing. Sorry, but I’d rather spend that extra time with my baby.”
At the end of the day, breastfeeding is a personal choice and what works for some doesn’t work for others, regardless of the proven benefits. There is no right or wrong choice if you’re making a decision based on what’s best for your family. Because, ultimately, nothing is more important than that.