Breastfeeding. Ocean-dwelling whales and dolphins breastfeed their young. Dogs, cats, elephants, and rhinos do, too. Some of the most primitive mammals that don't give birth to live young breastfeed. Even flying bats make milk. So breastfeeding your baby should be easy, right? It’s “natural!”
Natural.... Don’t get hung up on that word. While most women’s bodies do produce milk, breastfeeding can feel anything but natural. It can take a lot of trial and error and cause a lot of tears. It sure did for me. You are not alone if breastfeeding makes you feel confused, frustrated, nervous or wholly inadequate. But rest assured. In most cases, it will become the beautiful, intimate miracle advertised. Here are some basics to help you reach that dream.
First, don’t forget the most important thing: that your little one is properly nourished. There is a lot of pressure out there on moms to breastfeed, but there are reasons why breastfeeding may not be the best option for you or your little one. One reason is if your baby is not getting the nourishment he or she needs. Forget the judgmental talking heads and ask your doctor about options if you notice the following:
All that said, do not worry too much the first day or two. It takes a bit of time for milk to replace the colostrum (a yellowish liquid rich in antibodies that boosts baby’s immune system and precedes breast milk) your body produces. Babies are born with some energy stores to see them through that time. Plus their little tummies are only the size of a marble for the first couple days.
Another tip is to start breastfeeding as soon as possible. Breastfeeding right away helps with mother-child bonding, makes the experience for your baby more innate and less something to “learn,” and it provides nourishment. Breastfeeding right away also may help you get any assistance you may need sooner. If you give birth in a hospital, lactation consultants and nurses will likely be on hand to help you and baby ensure a proper latch (the connection of your baby’s mouth to your breast) and teach you the basics. Doulas and midwives can do the same. If you need help down the road, there are various organizations to call upon. La Leche League, dedicated to providing support and information to breastfeeding mothers, is one of several support organizations available. If nursing causes you pain or your gut is telling you something isn’t right, ask someone about it. Getting help early on can save you weeks of pain and misery.
Speaking of latching, it can be more challenging than you expect to get a proper latch. Without one, it is harder for baby to feed and it makes breastfeeding more painful for the mama. Latching is all about positioning. Think nipple to nose, belly to belly. When babies’ stomachs are lying on or alongside their mother’s stomach, they don’t have to turn their heads to latch. Point your nipple at baby’s nose, not the mouth. This encourages babies to position their heads up, open their mouths wide, and latch on deeply (covering the nipple, most of the lower part of your areola and some of the upper part of the areola). You may need to place your breast inside baby's mouth, such that your nipple fills the roof of it. Another tip: gently squeeze your breast so that some milk comes out, which will encourage baby to latch on and suckle.
Some experts encourage newly breastfeeding moms to nurse in a comfortably supported, semi-reclined position (around 45 degrees). Gravity helps support baby so you don’t have to do all the work. This also makes it easier for baby to use hands, position his or her head, and bury his or her chin into the breast. Some say babies nurse better when their feet are touching something, which helps them feel secure. Pushing baby’s head down toward your breast may trigger a baby’s resistance and may cause baby to chomp down. Instead, try placing your hand at the nape of baby’s neck and bring him or her swiftly to your breast. There is definitely more than one way to hold your baby while you nurse. For some inspiration, complete with pictures and videos, click here.
It is also important to alternate breasts during the same feeding. This helps alleviate your own breast discomfort (full breasts can be painful!), ensures baby gets enough to eat, and helps with milk supply. Moving the baby to switch breasts (and tickling his or her little feet or chin) helps keep baby awake and eating during feeding time, giving you more time between feedings. An added bonus!
Another breastfeeding basic is breast care. Pay attention to how your nipple looks when your baby detaches. If it is compressed, cracked, or bleeding, something is amiss. The same is true if you feel a lot of pain. Seek help if you experience these symptoms. Also, be on the lookout for blocked ducts or mastitis. Your breast may feel tender and/or hard. There may or may not be redness or a hard spot or sore lump on your breast. These are signs that a milk duct may be blocked. Treat blockage engorgement promptly with these methods.
If you are breastfeeding, stay hydrated and well-nourished. Remember, what you put in your body will usually also go into your breastfed child’s. Avoid drinking alcohol and using drugs except as prescribed by your doctor after being made aware that you are breastfeeding. For ideas about how to best nourish you both, click here.
Unless baby is not getting enough nutrition from breastfeeding, try to avoid formula and bottles at first. Using formula may keep your milk supply from sufficiently developing. And the bottle. Ouch. A hard one. Breastfeeding moms deserve a break. They deserve sleep! And their partners want a chance to nurture baby, too. However, while most babies are ultimately able to transition between bottle and breast without issue, the introduction of bottles before a baby has mastered the art of breastfeeding may make mastering breast or bottle harder. While we are at it, some experts suggest you avoid pacifiers at first, too. While pacifiers can comfort a child, they sometimes suppress hunger cues.
With regard to frequency and duration, newborns should nurse 8-12 times per day for the first month. By 1-2 months of age, babies nurse between 7 – 9 times a day. It is generally advised to feed a newborn whenever they are hungry (every 1 ½ -3 hours), going no more than four hours between feedings. Breastfed babies often eat more frequently than formula-fed babies. Babies digest breast milk more easily than formula, so breast milk moves through baby’s digestive track faster than formula, making them hungry sooner. Some babies hit it hard and hungry, finishing quickly. Others, like my son, savor each drop, turning each feeding into a 45-60 minute love affair with food.
Although breastfeeding offers tremendous health benefits and rewards, when one stops breastfeeding is often a question of personal preference, means, access, and culture. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding (i.e. no other fluids or solids) for six months and then continued breastfeeding combined with solid foods for 2 years or as long as mother and baby desire.
Lastly, there is the question of special supplies and clothing. There is a vast market of nursing bras, nursing pads, milk catchers, clothing designed for easy nursing, nipple ointments, herbs, teas, and foods to help with milk supply, and countless other items to assist with breastfeeding and breast comfort. And a wide range of prices. Do not be shy about researching anything that may make breastfeeding easier for you. Ask your doctors, doulas, midwives, lactation consultants, parent-friends and parent-networks about what they recommend and do not recommend. If breastfeeding is something you want to do, there is no reason why you shouldn't make it is comfortable as you can.
Breastfeeding, for me, was beautiful beyond words. That I could provide this gift for my son still fills me with joy. But there were times I worried my son would not get enough to eat or that I wasn't producing enough milk. There were times my breasts felt like they were going to explode. While it is not for everyone, I hope that these tips help make breastfeeding a little easier. Enjoy this time - however you nourish your little one!