Breastfeeding Basics: What You Need to Know to Get Started

Breast milk contains antibodies that can help keep your baby healthy. See more baby care pictures.

If you've never nursed a baby, you probably don't know what it's like to find yourself in a crowded restaurant, breasts ready to explode, frantically searching for a discreet corner to feed your hungry little one. You probably do not have a freezer full of frozen breast milk. You probably have never broken out in a sweat while standing in line at the bank, suddenly realizing you forgot to wear nursing pads and will begin leaking through your shirt at any moment.

You probably never worried about any of these things. But for many women these and other worries are a pretty routine aftereffect of the choice to give their babies breast milk. In fact, in 1998, 64 percent of women opted to breastfeed their babies in the early postpartum period, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Some 29 percent were still breastfeeding six months later, and 16 percent continued to breastfeed until baby's first birthday. With a slew of recent research to support the benefits to child, mother and society overall, experts seem to agree: breast milk is best, a message HHS plans to reinforce to the public with a new ad campaign slated for fall 2003.

Why Breastfeed? "I usually explain it to moms this way: Breast milk is human milk for human babies," says Carol Ryan, an international board-certified lactation consultant and director of the Georgetown University Hospital Lactation Center in Washington, D.C. "The most basic benefits are that it is species-specific, readily available, always warm and always sterile." In addition, breast milk contains antibodies that may help baby avoid certain illnesses and allergies. There is also evidence that breastfed babies have higher IQs than their formula-fed counterparts, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

For the breastfeeding mother, nursing may be linked to a reduction in certain cancers and in hip fractures, according to AAP. And, because mom is the manufacturer, breastfeeding is essentially free and eco-friendly, requiring no special packaging or preparation. Plus, many moms revel in the unique closeness with baby that breastfeeding offers.