Women hear the message that breastfeeding their newborns is the best way to ensure proper nutrition for the baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that new mothers breastfeed for at least a year and that breast milk be the baby’s only food during the first six months of life. However, in a study published in the July 2012 issue of the AAP journal, Pediatrics, researchers report that, although 85 percent of mothers planned to exclusively breastfeed for three months or longer, only 32 percent managed to fulfill their intention.

“One of the biggest reasons women may be reluctant to breastfeed is that they don’t have adequate information and support,” says Rebecca Martin, associate head nurse and lactation consultant for St. Luke’s Hospital Maternity and Newborn Services. “Breastfeeding does take patience, practice and persistence, especially in the beginning, but it has so many proven benefits for both baby and mom.”

Dr. Tammy Sonn, an obstetrician/- gynecologist with Washington University Physicians, points out several of these benefits. For instance, breastfed infants have fewer ear infections and a decreased risk of lung and gastrointestinal infections, childhood leukemia and sudden infant death syndrome. Mothers who breastfeed immediately after giving birth have less uterine blood loss, and breastfeeding is associated with a decreased rate of postpartum depression, increased postpartum weight loss and reduced risk of breast cancer later in life.

“One of the biggest issues is moms who are just having a very difficult time because they’re suffering from depression and fatigue,” Sonn says. “It’s just so hard to keep up with nursing a baby since it demands a lot from a mother. You’re the one who has to be up with the every baby every two to three hours at first. It makes it that much harder for moms who are already going through postpartum depression because they’re not able to get as much help as they could.”

The first couple weeks are often the most challenging, Martin adds. “In those first weeks after baby’s birth, a breastfeeding mother should focus on two things: taking care of herself and feeding her baby. Establishing a good breastfeeding routine takes two to three weeks.”

Sonn, a new mother herself, urges women to seek out the many area support services and resources available and talk with their physician if they have specific concerns or questions. Debbi Heffern, a Mercy lactation consultant, agrees. “Research shows that the mothers who have the most long-term success at breastfeeding are those who have ongoing support from their peers for dealing with challenges as they arise,” she says.

Beyond the importance of family and peer support, women should be aware that employers are legally required to provide adequate facilities (not a bathroom) and time for expressing breast milk while at work. Breastfeeding in public, ‘with as much discretion as possible,’ also is protected by law.

From a physical standpoint, “expectant and nursing moms need about 300 to 500 additional calories beyond their normal, healthful diet, and their diet should include a wide variety of foods in as close to their natural state as possible,” advises Heffern. Sonn also recommends that nursing mothers continue to take a prenatal vitamin.

Fortunately, mothers who enjoy spicy or ethnic foods can continue to eat them. “Contrary to popular belief, generally women do not need to avoid certain foods such as spicy foods or broccoli while breastfeeding,” Martin says. “In fact, in many other countries and cultures, breastfeeding mothers eat spicy foods as part of their regular diet. The most likely dietary culprit, if any, that may cause fussiness in a baby is protein, such as dairy, soy, eggs, wheat, nuts and fish. The key is eating everything in moderation.”

Alcohol, too, is OK in small amounts. “Ideally, alcohol is limited to occasional intake, but no more than half a gram per kilogram of body weight,” Sonn says. For a 130-pound woman, that would equal two ounces of hard liquor, eight ounces of wine or two beers. She also advises patients to nurse two hours or more after consuming alcohol. Drinking plenty of non-alcoholic fluids, especially water, is important to staying hydrated and maintaining a good milk supply.

The emotional and physical benefits of nursing are clear. “Breastfeeding isn’t just about the milk. It’s about the process, too,” Heffern notes. “The hormones that flow when mom is nursing keep her calmer and make it easier to take on the new role of being a mom. And the process of being held close by mom and drinking her milk helps deepen the relationship between mother and baby. This is how babies learn to love and trust other people.”