New parents want to give their babies the very best. When it comes to nutrition, the best first food for babies is breast milk.
More than two decades of research have established that breast milk is perfectly suited to nourish infants and protect them from illness. Breast-fed infants have lower rates of hospital admissions, ear infections, diarrhea, rashes, allergies, and other medical problems than bottle-fed babies.
"There are 4,000 species of mammals, and they all make a different milk. Human milk is made for human infants and it meets all their specific nutrient needs," says Ruth Lawrence, M.D., professor of pediatrics and obstetrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in Rochester, N.Y., and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The academy recommends that babies be breast-fed for six to 12 months. The only acceptable alternative to breast milk is infant formula. Solid foods can be introduced when the baby is 4 to 6 months old, but a baby should drink breast milk or formula, not cow's milk, for a full year.
"There aren't any rules about when to stop breast-feeding," says Lawrence. "As long as the baby is eating age-appropriate solid foods, a mother may nurse a couple of years if she wishes. A baby needs breast milk for the first year of life, and then as long as desired after that."
In 1993, 55.9 percent of American mothers breast-fed their babies in the hospital. Only 19 percent were still breast-feeding when their babies were 6 months old. Government and private health experts are working to raise those numbers.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is conducting a study on infant feeding practices as part of its ongoing goal to improve nutrition in the United States. The study is looking at how long mothers breast-feed and how they introduce formula or other foods.
Health experts say increased breast-feeding rates would save consumers money, spent both on infant formula and in health-care dollars. It could save lives as well.