World Breastfeeding Week begins August 1, marking seven days of focus on one of the most important things new mothers can do to keep their babies healthy and build their immune systems. This year’s theme is “Step up for Breastfeeding,” in part to help bring breastfeeding support systems at work and in the community back to where they were before the pandemic.

The week takes on even more importance this year as the country deals with an ongoing shortage of infant formula. Those headlines have led to more families with a baby on the way to consider breastfeeding and re-evaluate the benefits it offers over formula.

“We’re in a region that values organic food and locally-grown food, so it doesn’t make sense for people to choose formula,” said Deb Toffey, Nurse Manager for the Mother Bapby Unit at Good Samaritan Hospital. “Breast milk is the most natural, organically grown, local source of nutrition for babies.”

The ideal is for babies to get all their nutrition from breastfeeding for the first six months, says Toffey, who has been advising new mothers about nursing for 30 years. Yet, while more than 80 percent of infants get at least some breastfeeding, less than half are exclusively breastfed for the first three months of life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Barely one in four are breastfed exclusively for the first six months.

“If you want to provide the best you can for your infant, the first out is “liquid gold” – it literally is the gold standard of nutrition,” Toffey says. “It’s customized for your baby. Just like your body knew how to grow the baby, it knows how to make the right milk for that baby.”

There are a host of reasons why mothers should breastfeed unless they have a condition that prevents them from doing so successfully. Breast milk provides enormous health benefits for infants, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, including protection from infections and illnesses like ear infections and pneumonia. Breastfed babies have a lower risk of developing asthma and those breastfed for at least six months have lower chances of obesity. Breastfeeding also is beneficial to mothers, who have less risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers.