A mother writes, “That night, I struggled. I was trying to get the hang of how to breastfeed. The hospital sent us home with a bag of all kinds of samples: diapers, wipes, advertisements for infant life insurance, and that formula sample. Oh, that little can of powder was tempting.
I needed sleep. My baby girl needed sleep. My husband needed sleep.
I had read all pamphlets my doctor had given me about learning how to breastfeed, but I still felt lost.
I took a deep breath and whispered to myself, ‘you’ve got this,’ and I made my way to the rocking chair. After a few more minutes of crying, position changes, and latching attempts, she finally nursed. It felt like each feeding was a fight and victory.
The challenges of the first weeks of breastfeeding passed. And, in no time at all, what seemed like the most challenging thing in the world turned into the easiest!”
While breastfeeding is one of the most natural acts of humanity, it can also be extremely challenging. But, there is a lot to learn about how to breastfeed that can make this experience easier for mom and baby.
There is quite a bit to know about what happens within a woman’s body that not only creates life but also sustains life. The first step in learning how to breastfeed is to understand how it all works. Having this information from the get-go may be just what you need to get you through those initial rough spots.
For decades, people in medical and parenting communities have hailed the benefits of breastfeeding. There is no denying that breastfeeding is a beneficial way to feed babies.
The Cleveland Clinic provides a long list of benefits for babies and their mothers.
Benefits For Babies
Most people know of the immediate health benefits for breastfed babies. These benefits include things like lower rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and stronger immune systems which result in fewer illnesses like colds, respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal upsets, and lower rates of infant mortality.
But, what many people don’t know is that the benefits don’t stop at infancy.
Throughout life, people continue to receive the benefits of breastfeeding at the start of life. This act protects people during developmental years, with evidence showing fewer instances of things like allergies and asthma. There is also a link between fewer childhood cancers and breastfeeding.
Benefits don’t end in childhood, though. People breastfed as babies have a lower chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and heart disease as an adult — to name a few.
Breastfeeding provides a lot of benefits for the baby, but there’s more. Learning how to breastfeed also has substantial benefits for moms, too.
Benefits For Mothers
It shouldn’t be any surprise that breastfeeding is good for mom. However, some of these benefits may not be quite what you expect.
Sure, moms who breastfeed typically shed the baby weight at a faster rate than those who don’t nurse their babies. After all, extra calories are being used to feed another person. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Learning how to breastfeed also lowers a mother’s risk of breast and ovarian cancers for life. Cleveland Clinic also reports breastfeeding reduces the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and cardiovascular disease. They also say that mothers who breastfeed experience less endometriosis, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
This is all in addition to the well known emotional and convenience benefits of breastfeeding.
Arming yourself with this knowledge can help should you hit some bumps in the road in the beginning. Another thing that will assist you in successfully learning how to breastfeed is knowing the science that makes it all work.
One of the most vital things you need to know about how to breastfeed is how a female body produces milk.
Many new mothers struggle at the beginning of their breastfeeding journey with the fear that they are not making enough milk for their babies. While low supply issues certainly do happen, there is no denying that, and there are special circumstances in which some mothers cannot produce enough milk, most moms can and do.
Nearly all moms worry about it.
The First Couple Of Days
Did you know that supply and demand milk production does not begin until a day or so after the baby is born? Before that, the colostrum, which is the first milk produced and is the perfect food for a newborn, is a hormonally driven process. It is usual for the milk to not “come in” until two to three days after the birth.
This means that when you try to pump your breasts in the hospital immediately following the birth of your new baby that it is entirely reasonable only to get a few drops.
There is nothing wrong with your supply.
It doesn’t mean you won’t produce enough milk. It simply means your body is doing what it is supposed to do during that phase of learning how to breastfeed.
You may think, “my gosh, she will starve waiting for my milk to come in!”
Fortunately, mother nature knows all too well exactly what your baby needs. Colostrum is a high caloric food perfect for those first days of new life.
Supply And Demand
In the days that follow, the “controls” switch over to a supply and demand system.
That means every time your baby nurses, it will send triggering messages for your body to continue to make milk. Some days you may feel as though your baby is nursing non-stop. You may convince yourself that your baby has a bottomless pit for a stomach and that you will never produce enough milk to fill him.
Rest assured, in most cases, you’re doing just fine. The more baby nurses, the more milk that will follow in the next feedings. That’s a delicate dance during the first few weeks of learning how to breastfeed. Your baby regulates your milk supply.
As tempting as supplementing with formula may be, understand that replacing even one feeding with formula can trigger a decrease in supply for the subsequent feeding. If there is less milk available on the next feeding, your baby does run the risk of not getting enough. That can result in more supplementing and consequently less breastmilk — turning into a cycle that may ultimately cut your breastfeeding relationship short.
Just keep nursing.
Frequent nursing will tell your body it needs to produce more milk. Less nursing will trigger your body to produce less milk, which is excellent during the process of weaning.
Now that you know the mechanics of breastfeeding let’s talk about some of the tools that will help you along the way.
Things To Take Care Of The Baby
The first tool to mention is a quality nursing pillow.
This pillow will not only give your arms a break on those marathon nursing days when it’s clear a growth spurt is imminent, but it will also make positioning much more comfortable in those first few days following birth. Whether you have a vaginal birth or a cesarian section, you’ll be seeking as much comfort as possible while caring for the brand new tiny person you created.
Next, you will want to invest in a high-quality breast pump. Even if you don’t think you will use it.
Benefits of having a breast pump are two-fold. First, there will probably be times when you need to run an errand or go to an appointment without your baby. Pumping and introducing a bottle, so you’re prepared should you need to be away at times, or so your partner can feed the baby also, can be extremely beneficial.
Additionally, if you do experience times when you need to increase your supply, pumping for 10 minutes after your baby has finished feeding, even if you don’t see any milk fill the bottle, can help give you a boost. That stimulation is key to the supply and demand process.
Of course, if you have a breast pump, you’ll need to find a bottle that your baby will accept. This may require a bit of trial and error. Fortunately, innovation in baby bottles has come a long way throughout the years.
However, every baby is different, and even at a young age, they will express their preferences — often loudly! Having an assortment of a few different kinds of bottles and nipples will speed up the process of finding just the right one.
A Few Things To Take Care Of You
You’ll also want to have some nursing pads (which are also available in reusable pads that you throw in the wash) and nipple cream on hand. Both prove to be invaluable products during the early days of learning how to breastfeed.
Lastly, invest in a couple of soft nursing bras. Even if you don’t usually sleep in a bra at night, that may change when you’re first learning how to breastfeed. Many new mothers say they find it more comfortable. Softness and accessibility are crucial when looking for the right one.
Getting Started: How To Breastfeed
Now that you know how breastfeeding works and the tools that will help you along the way, let’s get down to business.
If you are fortunate enough to have a lactation consultant visit you in the hospital, one of the very first things you’ll learn is how to get baby to latch. Believe it or not, this will take just a bit of getting used to.
Often, if breastfeeding is hurting, the first thing to check is how the baby is latching on to the breast. A proper latch shouldn’t hurt.
The Office on Women’s Health advises first to attempt the latch through baby-led breastfeeding. This is with lots of skin-to-skin time. You’ll watch for signs of hunger like rooting (bobbing the head) and attempts to make eye contact with you. With baby-led breastfeeding, your newborn will instinctually find the nipple, latch on, and nurse.
Assisting The Baby’s Latch
However, should your baby need a little help latching, there are a few things you can try to facilitate the process.
The first is to encourage the baby to open their mouth wide by tickling their bottom lip with your nipple. Then, while the mouth is wide open like a baby bird, you’ll aim the lower lip to latch further down from the base of the nipple. This will make it so your baby takes an ample amount of breast.
A good latch will not hurt. You also should take note that when the baby has a good latch, you will see very little areola.
Latching is a building block for learning how to breastfeed. It may be a bit challenging at first, but once you and your baby get the hang, you’re well on your way to success.
There are many options when it comes to nursing positions to use as you learn how to breastfeed. Over time, you’ll find your preferred positions may change as your baby grows.
In the first few weeks, experts recommend skin-to-skin contact at nearly every feeding. This stimulation helps tap into your baby’s instinct to nurse.
Now, there is no position that is perfect for every mother and baby. So, finding the right one will take a bit of creativity on your part.
Laid-back Or Supine
The laid-back breastfeeding position, also known as the supine position, is often used for baby-led breastfeeding. This may be one of the very first positions you try while still in the hospital, usually at the time of the birth.
However, many mothers find this position the most comfortable throughout the breastfeeding stage.
Likely one of the most popular positions for nursing a baby, the cradle position is convenient and comfortable. Moms often need a nursing pillow with newborns. The extra support can help, especially with slow little nursers.
A slight variation from the previous hold is the cross-cradle position. Much like the cradle position, the cross-cradle may require a supportive nursing pillow to get through those early days.
Clutch Or Football
Nursing mothers who have large breasts or who had a cesarean section often prefer the clutch, or football, hold. This position places no pressure on the abdominal incision.
The side-lying position is a perfect way for mom to get a little rest while the baby is nursing. Sometimes just lying down for a few minutes will freshen up the day.
Experts recommend that mothers nurse on demand. This means anytime your baby is hungry, whether they nursed three hours ago, or 15 minutes ago, you’re encouraged to nurse them.
While there is some debate about scheduling babies who are formula fed, there is no debate regarding breastfeeding. Remember, every time the baby nurses it stimulates more milk production, so those many feeds are vitally important.
When athletes prepare for a match or game, many will “carb load” to have enough fuel to sustain them through their competition. While babies aren’t swimming relays or running marathons, they are using a lot of energy to grow rapidly.
Often infants will do what is called “cluster feeding” or “bunch feeding” to store up for the long stretch at night. The bonus is, if they nurse more frequently in the evening hours, you might have fewer sleepless nights.
Cluster feeding also occurs right before a growth spurt.
According to KellyMom, growth spurts will typically go on for about two to three days but can last for as long as a full week.
All babies experience growth spurts. You can watch for them to typically happen within the first few days after arriving home from the hospital. Then more growth spurts will follow “around 7-10 days, 2-3 weeks, 4-6 weeks, 3 months, 4 months, 6 months, and then 9 months.”
You can expect more frequent and more prolonged nursing sessions during those times. Just remember, this is what will naturally tell your body to increase milk production. Make sure you get plenty to drink, and you may require an extra snack to sustain your energy during this time.
Many mothers experience some common difficulties with breastfeeding. While this process is not all smooth sailing, most of the kinks are typically worked out within the first couple of months.
Then, it all gets much more relaxed.
According to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, painful and tender nipples should not last longer than the first few days. If you are experiencing severe pain, there is an issue that needs resolution.
Sore nipples are often a symptom of problems with positioning or latch. Additionally, they can be a sign of inverted nipples, which may require nipple shields, or that your baby has a short frenulum (tongue-tie).
Nipple cream can provide some temporary relief of sore nipples. However, if the soreness is severe, it is best to see your doctor or lactation consultant for support.
As previously mentioned, new moms often believe they are having supply issues when they aren’t. But, how do you know for sure your baby is getting enough milk during those first few weeks?
First and foremost is weight gain. Newborns typically gain 5 to 7 ounces per week, regaining to their birth weight by 2-weeks old. You will also want to watch wet and dirty diapers. After the fourth day, you should see six or more wet diapers and at least three dirty diapers per day.
So, what should you do if your baby isn’t gaining weight or having the right amount of wet and dirty diapers?
Call your doctor and consult a lactation consultant immediately. Lactation consultants are registered nurses who specialize in nursing mothers. Their expertise is often invaluable to breastfeeding success.
Breast engorgement is not only uncomfortable, but it can also wreak havoc on the breastfeeding experience. Engorgement happens when the breasts are overfull. It is painful for mom, and it can make it difficult for your baby to latch. Severe engorgement can result in plugged ducts and infections.
If you experience engorgement, you can treat it with warm compresses for a couple of minutes before nursing to soften your breasts. Hand expressing a little milk can also make it easier for baby to latch. It’s also helpful to nurse more frequently.
Plugged milk ducts are a common occurrence and are often caused by engorgement, skipping a feeding, or even a bra that is too tight. Fortunately, the treatment is relatively simple. Apply warm compresses, massage the breast and breastfeed frequently. Typically, these steps, coupled with plenty of rest for mom, will clear the plugged duct reasonably quickly.
However, if it doesn’t, the soreness and lump may be the sign of something more serious: mastitis. This is an infection in the breast that typically requires medical attention. If you experience flu-like symptoms, including fever, please call your doctor.
Breastfeeding Bonding Time
Breastfeeding creates a fantastic bond between mother and child. While learning how to breastfeed can be surprisingly challenging, with the right support system, knowledge, and patience, it can grow into a beautiful thing.
Do you have a breastfeeding experience you’d like to share with us? Tell us about it in the comments section below.