What To Know About Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding provides a healthy start for mother and baby.
Learn how to develop a nursing relationship that will benefit you both.
By Maria Oldham
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As a new or soon-to-be mom, the idea of providing for a baby can be overwhelming. Even before your baby’s birth, you are a lifeline, with your baby relying on you to provide the nutrients needed for growth and development in the womb. It’s a big responsibility! Thankfully, your body was made to do this.
From a purely physical standpoint, breastfeeding is the healthiest option for you and your baby. For moms, the release of the oxytocin hormone during breastfeeding helps the uterus contract back to its pre-pregnancy size and helps stop post-birth bleeding. Breastfeeding also lowers a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.
For babies, breast milk offers all the nutrients necessary for a healthy immune system. Research shows breastfeeding lowers a baby’s risk of type 1 and type 2 diabetes, viruses, ear and respiratory infections, asthma and allergies, obesity, childhood leukemia, eczema, diarrhea, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
“In the short term, breastfeeding also helps a baby with digestion within that first year of life,” says Cindy Nash, a lactation consultant with Erlanger Health System. “The breast milk goes in and protects the gut lining, much like a coat of armor.”
When will the milk come in?
“The first few days after birth, the breast releases colostrum, a nutrient-rich substance that helps babies fight infections by boosting their immune systems,” says Stephanie Darnell, a certified nurse-midwife with Associates in Women’s Health. “After that, the mother will experience the onset of breast milk ‘coming in’ with a rapid increase of volume.”
When should I begin breastfeeding?
Mothers are encouraged to begin feeding as soon as possible after birth – timing is key. Breastfeeding will be a learning process for both of you; the sooner you start, the better. “A baby is hardwired to breastfeed within that first hour when they are most alert,” says Nash. “If you can do that, the breastfeeding relationship is likely to go really well. We want the baby coming to the mom and getting the nipple to the mouth. The baby will get familiar with that and ‘imprint’ on this first experience.”
How can I help my baby latch on?
Babies are born with a sucking instinct, but you can aid the nursing process. “The first thing is to be as comfortable and relaxed as possible,” says Nash. “You want plenty of support for your arms, back, and the weight of your baby. Then, bring your baby to you in a close position with the baby’s body facing towards your breast, in a snug little hug so that the baby doesn’t have to reach uncomfortably or turn their head.”
During the first feeding, skin-to-skin contact will encourage your baby to start nursing. Cup your breast and stroke their lower lip with your nipple – this will stimulate the rooting (turning toward the nipple and sucking) reflex. Bring your baby to your breast, turning the nipple towards the roof of their mouth.
How often should I breastfeed?
During the first month, your baby should feed eight to 12 times per day. Breast milk contains whey, which is easy to digest and therefore digested quickly. “Infants require frequent feedings due to their small stomachs,” explains Darnell. “The baby’s stomach will empty in about an hour to an hour and a half, so most infants require feeding every two hours.”
After the first month or two, your baby should be able to go longer between feedings, nursing about seven to nine times per day. Continue to feed on demand – they’ll let you know when they’re hungry!
“Breastfeed on cue,” says Darnell. “However, don’t go long periods of time without breastfeeding, because milk follows the basic cycle of supply and demand – it’s made rapidly when the breast is empty and slowly as the breast fills with milk.”
How can I tell if my baby is getting enough?
Each baby is different. Let your baby nurse until satisfied. She will unlatch or fall asleep if she has gotten enough. Let her empty one breast before offering the other; if she doesn’t want more, start on that breast the next time you nurse. If your baby is getting enough milk, she will:
- act satisfied after feeding
- be alert while awake
- gain weight consistently after the first week
“By the end of the first week, the baby should also be passing five or more loose stools per day and soaking six or more wet diapers,” says Darnell. “Frequent stool output and urine output are indicators of adequate nutrition intake.”
Do I need to change my diet?
The fundamentals apply when it comes to breastfeeding: a well-balanced diet is best. By eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, protein, whole grains, and foods that are rich in calcium, you’ll provide your baby with the best possible start. Because you’re feeding another human being, doctors suggest taking in an extra 300 to 500 calories per day, drinking plenty of water, and adding vitamin D to your daily vitamin routine.
Can I drink alcohol and caffeine?
Moderation is key as both can get to your baby through your breast milk. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an occasional alcoholic drink is okay. However, they recommend waiting at least two hours before nursing after having a drink. You should also limit your caffeine intake to about one to two cups a day.
Can I take medication?
“Most prescribed medications are safe to take while breastfeeding,” says Teresa Walker, mother and baby and lactation director with Parkridge East Hospital. “But if you have a question or concern, you should consult your physician.”
A physician can also offer new moms guidance on the use of birth control while breastfeeding. Progestin-only contraceptive pills are often recommended, as those with estrogen can decrease milk supply.
How long should I breastfeed?
How long you breastfeed is a personal decision, and it will depend on a number of factors, including going back to work and your baby’s health. The AAP recommends mothers exclusively breastfeed for at least the first six months, and then along with age-appropriate foods until at least one year. After that, they suggest breastfeeding for as long as mother and baby would like.
“Sometimes people think that the baby will stop reaping the benefits after six months to one year, but that’s a myth,” says Nash. “A mom will continue to pass antibodies to her baby for as long as she breastfeeds.”
I’m having a hard time. What can I do?
Learning the ins and outs of breastfeeding takes time. Be patient, and if you need help learning the ropes, don’t be afraid to ask for it! “If a mom is having a difficult time breastfeeding or is experiencing pain while breastfeeding, she should call a lactation consultant or her physician to assess the cause,” says Walker.
Breastfeeding shouldn’t be painful. If it hurts, reach out for help immediately. Lactation consultants have years of experience and can offer useful tips. “Usually, a one-on-one consultation with a lactation specialist is covered by your insurance,” says Nash. “It can be a great resource for moms who are really struggling and need some one-on-one professional advice.”