Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: breast feeding from Dictionary of Medical Terms

feeding a baby from the mother's breasts as opposed to from a bottle. Compare bottle feeding

Summary Article: Breastfeeding
From Encyclopedia of Motherhood

Breastfeeding refers to the act of providing mothers’ milk to infants for the purpose of nutrition. The most widely accepted definition of breastfeeding seems to accept infants/children extracting milk through sucking at their mothers’ breasts for the health benefit of the infant and mother. The act of a woman expressing milk from her breast with the intention of feeding her infant is referred to as breast milk fed, according to Le Leche League International. Understanding breastfeeding history, biology, research, policies, resources, potential problems, treatments, and environmental supports is beneficial to gaining a full understanding of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding History, Research, and Policy

Breastfeeding can be traced back to the earliest societies where breastmilk was the only way to nourish infants, as is the case with other mammals. Breast-milk is produced during pregnancy. The baby's sucking stimulates the release of hormones (prolactin and oxytocin), which lead to breastmilk “coming in” and “letting down,” respectively, three to seven days after birth. The milk is moved from the milk gland into the milk ducts and into the nipple, where is sucked into the baby's mouth. Until the milk comes in, babies will receive colostrum, which is low in fat but high in carbohydrates, protein, and antibodies. It is extremely easy to digest and an excellent first food for babies.

Breastmilk is the perfect first food for babies, as it contains the precise levels of water, sugar, fat, and nutrients babies need.

Current research and policy exist to support the importance of breastfeeding for the health of infants and their mothers. The World Health Organization (WHO), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend that women breastfeed for at least one year (with exclusive breastfeeding for at least 6 months) to provide their babies with the best source of nutrition and antibodies to protect them from colds and infections. Breastmilk is easy for babies to digest, and it contains the perfect amounts of fat, sugar, water, and protein needed for growth and development. Studies have shown that breastfed children have slightly higher IQs than formula-fed children, as well as lower rates of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), type 1 and 2 diabetes, asthma, high cholesterol, overweight, and obesity. For new mothers, breastfeeding can help reduce the risk of certain breast and ovarian cancers, increase weight loss of pregnancy pounds, shrink the uterus (thus lessening bleeding), delay the return of ovulation and menstrual cycles, reduce the risk of hip fractures and osteoporosis after menopause, and provide opportunities for bonding and relaxation.

Breastfeeding Techniques

How to breastfeed and express breastmilk involve many preferences of the mother and baby. There are several recommended positions (such as the cradle or football hold); schedules (alternating breasts during a feeding or one breast for a feeding, or alternating each time); and length of breastfeeding episodes (for example, 20 minutes or as long as the baby wants). Further, expressing breastmilk can be performed by baby-only, the hand, handheld manual pump, electric handheld pump, or institutional-grade electric pump. Among the many possible preferences, time and comfort may be the most common criteria among women.

Work and Health: Benefits and Challenges

Employers can reap benefits, such as decreased absenteeism and increased productivity, if they invest in supporting lactation for their employees. Breastfeeding has also been associated with a reduction in health care costs. Healthier babies translate to fewer sick care visits, prescriptions, and hospitalizations. Further, breastmilk is inexpensive, convenient, and a natural way to nurture babies. For 2010, the U.S. Surgeon General has set goals to have 75 percent of babies breastfed when they leave the hospital; 50 percent of babies still breastfed at 6 months of age; and 25 percent of babies still breastfed at 1 year of age.

With advancements in research, policy, and technology, many mothers plan to breastfeed their babies. However, due to financial obligations, career aspirations, and societal/workplace constraints, these mothers encounter difficulties in achieving the goals and expectations set by the medical profession and lactation experts. The protection, promotion, and support of breastfeeding among working women is an important issue that requires greater attention as the majority of mothers plan to return to work. Despite the known benefits of breastfeeding, rates drop once women return to work due to a lack of support and knowledge regarding how to manage breastfeeding while at work, a nonsupportive work environment, and problems pumping breastmilk. Effective strategies for women to maintain breastfeeding until their babies are at least 6 months old include delayed return to work, working part time, improved conditions at work for breastfeeding, breastfeeding breaks during work hours, milk expression and storage options, and access to breastfeeding counseling.

In addition to the aforementioned potential barriers mothers may encounter, there are a few related specifically to women's health worth noting. It is common for women to experience some discomfort related to engorged breasts or pain from cracked nipples. Breast engorgement can occur from a delayed necessity to express breastmilk, or a baby's extracting less milk than is being produced. In other words, too much breastmilk can become contained within the mammary glands, frequently causing blocked milk ducts, which can be painful for women and may develop into mastitis (inflammation of the breast). In rare cases, untreated mastitis can develop into an abscess, which may involve surgery to remediate. Cracked or sore nipples occur when nipples become dry, and may result from improper latch-on by the baby or prolonged nursing. Correct latch-on involves the baby's mouth placed around the areola and his tongue under the areola.

Almost all breastfeeding mothers experience leaky breasts at some point. Breasts may leak on several different occasions, resulting from cues for milk letdown, like the sound of a crying baby, during lovemaking, overdue breastfeeding, and when weaning a baby from the breast.

Breastfeeding may continue for as long as the mother and infant/child desire. Some women wean their babies, and some babies wean themselves. Fortunately, there is a plethora of information on the Internet and in written resources for breastfeeding mothers, especially as provided by the Le Leche League International.

See Also:

Academe and Motherhood, Breastmilk, Care Giving, Maternal Health, Wet Nursing

  • Ferreira Rea, Marina; Morrow, Ardythe L. “Protecting, Promoting, and Supporting Breastfeeding Among Women in the Labor Force.” Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology v.554, 2004.
  • Kantor, Jodi “On the Job, Nursing Mothers Find a 2-Class System.” New York Times : , September 1, 2006.
  • Labbok, Mirriam “What Is the Definition of Breastfeeding.” Breastfeeding Abstracts v.19, February 2000.
  • Rabin, Roni “Breast-Feed or Else.” New York Times : , June 13, 2006.
  • Vancour, Michele L.
    Southern Connecticut State University
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Breastfeeding
    Encyclopedia of Obesity

    Scientific knowledge has demonstrated that breastfeeding is the preferred method of feeding and nurturing infants and is the primary means of...

    Full text Article Breastfeeding
    Encyclopedia of Global Health

    Breastfeeding is the name for taking milk from the nipple of the mother or another woman producing milk. The process is known as suckling when...

    Full text Article Breastfeeding
    Encyclopedia of Motherhood

    Breastfeeding refers to the act of providing mothers’ milk to infants for the purpose of nutrition. The most widely accepted definition of...

    See more from Credo