14 myths and truths about breastfeeding

What you should know when it comes to breastfeeding

Expert advice from UNICEF about breastfeeding babies for mothers.
UNICEF/China/2017/Li Manwei
05 August 2019

Myths and truths about breastfeeding

1. Myth? Breastfeeding is easy.

The truth is while babies are born with the reflex to look for their mother’s breast, many mothers will still need to position their baby for breastfeeding and make sure their baby is correctly attached to the breast. Breastfeeding takes time and practice for both mothers and babies. Breastfeeding is also time intensive, so mothers need space and support at home and work.

2. Myth? It’s usual for breastfeeding to hurt – sore nipples are inevitable.

Many mothers experience discomfort in the first few days after birth when they are learning to breastfeed. But with the right support on positioning their baby for breastfeeding and by making sure their baby is correctly attached to the breast, sore nipples can be avoided. If a mother faces breastfeeding challenges like sore nipples, support from a lactation consultant or a skilled professional can help them overcome the issue.

3. Myth? You should wash your nipples before breastfeeding.

Washing your nipples before breastfeeding isn’t necessary. When babies are born, they are already very familiar with their own mother’s smells and sounds. The nipples produce a substance that the baby smells and has ‘good bacteria’ that help to build the baby’s own healthy immune system for life.

Did you know? Breastfeeding protects your baby from ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia and other childhood diseases.

4. Myth? You should separate a newborn and mother to let the mother rest. 

Doctors, nurses and midwives often encourage the practice of ‘skin-to-skin’ – also known as kangaroo mother care – immediately after birth. Bringing your baby in direct contact, so their skin is against yours, is a very important practice that helps them to find and attach to the breast. If you can practice this as soon as possible after birth and then frequently after, it helps to establish breastfeeding. If the mother cannot do this, then the partner or another family member can step in. 

5. Myth? You should only eat plain food while breastfeeding.

Like everybody else, breastfeeding mothers need to eat a balanced diet. In general, there is no need to change food habits. Babies are exposed to their mothers’ food preferences from the time they are in the womb. If a mother perceives that her baby reacts to a specific food she eats, it is best to consult a specialist.  

6. Myth? Exercise will affect the taste of your milk.

Exercise is healthy, also for breastfeeding mothers. There is no evidence that it affects the taste of your milk. 

7. Myth? You won’t be able to breastfeed unless you do it straight away.

It’s easier to begin breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth (because a baby’s reflexes are very strong at this time). A lot more effort is needed to start lactation, if you miss this first-hour window. If you do not latch your baby on right after birth, do it as soon as possible. If you need help putting your baby to the breast, ask for support from a qualified lactation consultant or other skilled professional. Frequent skin-to-skin contact and putting your baby to the breast will help to get breastfeeding going.

Did you know? Breastfeeding protects the mother from diabetes, breast and ovarian cancers, heart disease and postpartum depression.

8. Myth? Many mothers can’t produce enough milk. 

Almost all mothers produce the right amount of milk for their babies. Breastmilk production is determined by how well the baby is latched on to the breast, the frequency of breastfeeding and how well the baby is removing milk with each feeding. Breastfeeding isn’t a ‘one woman’ job and mothers need support. Support like ongoing breastfeeding guidance from health care providers, help at home, and staying healthy by eating and drinking well is important.

9. Myth? You shouldn't breastfeed if you’re sick.

Depending on the kind of illness, mothers can usually continue breastfeeding when they’re sick. You need to make sure you get the right treatment, and rest, eat and drink well. In many cases, the antibodies your body makes to treat your disease or illness will pass on to your baby, building his or her own defenses.

10. Myth? You can’t take any medication if you’re breastfeeding.

It’s important to inform your doctor that you are breastfeeding and to read the instructions with any medications you buy over the counter. It might be necessary to take medications at a specific time or in a specific dosage, or to take an alternative formulation. You should also tell the baby’s doctor about any medications that you’re taking.

Did you know? The ‘first milk’ – or colostrum – is rich in antibodies and gives newborns an immunity boost while their own immune systems are still developing. 

11. Myth? Babies who have been breastfed are clingy.

All babies are different. Some are clingy and some are not, no matter how they are fed. Breastfeeding provides not only the best nutrition for infants, but is also important for their developing brain. Breastfed babies are held a lot and because of this, breastfeeding has been shown to enhance bonding with their mother. 

12. Myth? It’s hard to wean a baby if you breastfeed for more than a year.

There’s no evidence that it is more difficult to stop breastfeeding after one year, but there is evidence that breastfeeding up to two years is beneficial for both mothers and children. All mothers and babies are different and need to determine together how long they want to breastfeed. 

13. Myth? If you go back to work, you’ll have to wean your baby.

Many mothers continue breastfeeding after going back to work. First, check the policies in your workplace. If you have the right to time and a place to breastfeed during working hours, you may be able to go home and breastfeed, ask a family member or friend to bring your baby to you, or to express your milk and take it home. If you don’t have the option to breastfeed during working hours, look for moments during the day to express your milk and then feed your baby directly when you are at home. If you decide to give your baby a breastmilk substitute for some feeds, it still very good to continue breastfeeding whenever you are with your baby.

14. Myth? Breastfeeding is a mother matter.

While breastfeeding is a mother’s domain, when fathers, parents, families, workplaces and communities support the mother, the breastfeeding rate increases. A study by the Lancet breastfeeding series in 2016 showed that with just a one month increase in paid maternity leave, the duration of breastfeeding increases by two months. It also showed that paid nursing-break guarantees for at least six months were associated with an 8.9 per cent increase in exclusive breastfeeding.

Some responses in this article were developed in collaboration with Dr. Michele Griswold PhD, MPH, RN, IBCLC. Dr. Griswold is a lactation consultant, registered nurse, breastfeeding researcher and advocate. She represents the International Lactation Consultant Association to the WHO/UNICEF Global Breastfeeding Collective, which calls on governments and society as a whole to provide mothers the support they need to breastfeed.