Breastfeeding is one of the best things you can do as a new mom. Not only does it strengthen your baby's immune system and boost his physical and mental development, it also protects your own health by lowering the risk of illnesses like breast and ovarian cancer. Research shows that breastfed babies have a lower risk of conditions like diarrhea, gastrointestinal illness, urinary-tract infections, respiratory disease, ear infections, allergies, pneumonia, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). It can also cut a child's chances of developing diabetes and some childhood cancers, and he'll be less likely to become obese. Studies even show that kids who were breastfed tend to have higher IQs than those who were formula-fed. And nursing releases hormones that can heighten feelings of love, helping you bond with your newborn. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing for at least 12 months.
All that said, breastfeeding is not always as easy as it looks, and when things get difficult, it's tempting to switch to formula. But if you can get through those early weeks, nursing gets better for many moms. It's a good idea to get recommendations for a lactation expert (your ob-gyn or pediatrician may be able to provide some names) before your baby's born or soon after, so you have someone already lined up in case you run into problems. --Laura Flynn McCarthy
Originally published in Parents magazine, August 2002. Updated 2009.