The benefits of breast-feeding are well established. Consider ways to support breast-feeding — and how to handle feelings of guilt if you can't or decide not to breast-feed. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Breast-feeding is the optimal way to feed a newborn. Depending on the circumstances, however, various factors might lead you to consider formula-feeding. Here, Jay Hoecker, M.D., an emeritus pediatrics specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., answers important questions about breast-feeding and formula-feeding.

How long you choose to breast-feed your baby is up to you. Exclusive breast-feeding is typically recommended for the first six months after birth — and continued until at least age 1 in combination with solid foods. Breast milk contains the right balance of nutrients for your baby and boosts your baby's immune system. It's considered the gold standard for infant nutrition.

Ask your baby's doctor about vitamin D supplements for the baby, especially if you're exclusively breast-feeding. Breast milk might not provide enough vitamin D, which helps your baby absorb calcium and phosphorus — nutrients necessary for strong bones.

Taking care of yourself can go a long way toward promoting successful breast-feeding. Eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of fluids and rest as much as possible. To boost your confidence, learn as much as you can about breast-feeding. Keep the environment calm and relaxed. Look to your partner and other loved ones for support. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Friends who've successfully breast-fed might be a good source of information. Lactation consultants are available at many hospitals and clinics. Your baby's doctor might be able to help, too.

If you're struggling, ask a lactation consultant or your baby's doctor for help. If your baby's doctor is concerned that your baby isn't receiving adequate nutrition or hydration, he or she might suggest supplementing with formula. Breast milk is the ideal food for babies — and the best way to keep a baby healthy — but proper nutrition and hydration are absolutely essential.

Commercial infant formulas don't contain the immunity-boosting elements of breast milk. For most babies, breast milk is also easier to digest than formula. When prepared as directed, however, infant formula supports healthy babies who have typical dietary needs. A baby who has special nutritional needs might require a special formula.

Exclusive breast-feeding is typically recommended for the first six months after birth. Some mothers are able to successfully combine breast-feeding and formula-feeding — especially after breast-feeding has been well established.

If you're considering formula-feeding, do your research so that you can make an informed decision. Then focus on nourishing and nurturing your baby — instead of feeling guilty or dwelling on other negative emotions. You might also share your feelings with your doctor, your baby's doctor or others in your support circle. Remember, parenting is an adventure that requires choices and compromises. What counts is doing the best you can as you face this new challenge.

Apr. 10, 2012