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Facts for Life


Supporting Information


Breastmilk alone is the best food and drink for an infant for the first six months of life. No other food or drink, not even water, is usually needed during this period.

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Breastmilk is the best food a young child can have. It promotes optimal growth and development and protects against illness. Breastmilk contains the perfect balance of nutrients for a baby, unlike infant formula, powdered milk or animal milk.

The baby does not need water or other drinks or foods (such as tea, juice, sugar water, gripe water, rice water, other milks, formula or porridge) during the first six months. Even in hot, dry climates, breastmilk fully meets a baby's need for fluids.

Breastmilk is easy for the baby to digest. A baby has difficulty digesting animal milks, and formula is digested much more slowly than breastmilk. Compared to other options, breastmilk nourishes the baby more efficiently.

Breastmilk protects against illness because it contains antibodies that transfer the mother's immunity or resistance to disease to the child. No other milks contain these antibodies.

Giving a baby under 6 months of age any liquids or foods other than breastmilk increases the risk of diarrhoea and other illnesses. Water and other liquids or foods may be contaminated, which can cause diarrhoea.

A baby who takes water or other liquids or foods in the first six months suckles less on the breast. This slows down breastmilk production.

If regular weighing shows that a breastfed baby under 6 months of age is not growing well:

  • The mother may need help to improve the way the baby takes the breast into the mouth to ensure good attachment so the baby can suckle effectively.
  • The baby may need more opportunities to breastfeed. The baby should breastfeed on demand, day and night, at least eight times during a 24-hour period. The baby should be allowed to breastfeed until she or he releases the breast and looks satisfied and sleepy. This shows that the baby has had all she or he wants from that breast. The baby should then be offered the other breast and may or may not want it. The baby should be kept on the breast until she or he has finished suckling.
  • A low-birthweight baby may need frequent pauses during breastfeeding.
  • The baby may be ill and should be checked by a trained health worker.
  • The baby may be getting water or other fluids, which can reduce the intake of breastmilk. The mother may need guidance on how to reduce and eliminate other fluids and to increase and give only breastmilk.

Feeding a baby only with breastmilk and on demand during the first six months can help to delay the return of the mother's menstruation. This may help to delay the next pregnancy. However, there is some possibility – less than 2 per cent – that a mother can become pregnant before her periods return. This becomes increasingly likely after six months.

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