Breastfeeding may be one of the most natural things in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, particularly in the early days. That’s why taking the time to do your research — and, say, give yourself a sort of Breastfeeding 101 crash course before you even begin nursing — is so important. After all, these days more moms are choosing to breastfeed than ever before; 83 percent of newborn infants born in the U.S. in 2015 were breastfed for at least a short time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So if you’re planning to breastfeed — or even if you’ve already embarked upon your breastfeeding journey — here’s everything you really need to know about the process..
Breast milk is clever stuff
In the beginning, your breast milk changes week by week depending on the particular needs of your newborn. The very first milk you produce is called colostrum, a thick, sticky, yellowish substance that’s packed with antibodies and nutrients. You might only produce a few teaspoons at a time, but that’s all your baby needs.
Around three to five days postpartum, transitional milk arrives. This looks like a cross between orange juice and milk — appetizing, right? Finally, around 10 to 14 days postpartum, your mature milk comes in. It looks like watery skim milk, and this is what your baby will feed on for the rest of your breastfeeding days (and nights).
Breastfeeding can be a full-time job
A breastfed baby typically feeds eight to 12 times during a 24-hour period, OB-GYN Sherry Ross tells SheKnows. And each session can take a while — a feeding isn’t complete until the baby has totally drained at least one breast, which ensures they get the fatty hind milk and not just the watery foremilk. It’s important for nursing parents to try to delegate meal prep, household chores, looking after older kids — and everything else — to other people, at least in the early days, so you can establish breastfeeding with as few interruptions and stresses as possible.
It shouldn’t hurt
One of the biggest — and most dangerous — myths about breastfeeding is that it’s normal for it to hurt (a midwife once told me to just “work through the pain”). “A newborn suckling on a nipple for any extended period of time can create discomfort and some amount of soreness,” nurse practitioner and certified midwife Risa Klein tells SheKnows. “But pain normally means the latch is incorrect and the baby needs to be taken off the breast.”
It can be frustrating and stressful when breastfeeding doesn’t work, but lots of babies struggle to get a good latch right away. It takes practice and patience. To improve latch, lactation consultant and La Leche League leader Leigh Anne O’Connor recommends these steps:
- Align your baby’s eyes to your nipple.
- Hold your baby very close: “Velcro” them to you, belly to belly.
- Make sure you’re sitting or lying comfortably with your back straight and your shoulders rolled back. Relax! (We know. Easier said than done.)
- Don’t press on your baby’s head, as this can cause their chin to tuck and make their latch shallow. Place your hand lightly at the back of their neck instead.
- With your other hand, flip open your baby’s top lip and press open their chin, then hold for several seconds.
If the pain persists or you feel like you need some support (practical, emotional or both), contact a breastfeeding counselor or lactation consultant. Other causes of pain during breastfeeding are thrush, a fungal infection caused by an overgrowth of yeastlike organisms called Candida albicans, and mastitis, a breast infection resulting from clogged milk ducts.
Your baby will guide you
Many breastfeeding moms worry that their baby isn’t getting enough milk. While it’s easy to measure and monitor formula or breast milk given in a bottle, there’s not the same reassurance when you’re nursing. Take your cues from your baby — they know when they’re hungry and when they’re full. “Normal breastfeeding cues — such as rooting, licking, sucking and moving their head — tells you your baby is hungry,” says Ross. “But if they fall asleep or pull themselves off the breast, they are probably full. Your baby will also pee and poop throughout the day to let you know they are digesting breast milk.”
Just like adults, babies are hungrier some days than others and take varying amounts each feed. If you have any concerns about how much your baby is feeding, talk to your pediatrician.
“Breast is best” — but not always, actually
The World Health Organization calls colostrum the “perfect food for the newborn” and recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months of age with continued breastfeeding together with appropriate complementary foods up to 2 years of age or beyond.
Ultimately, your baby’s nutritional needs are the most important thing. So if a breastfed baby isn’t gaining enough weight from breastfeeding alone due to milk-supply or latching issues, the solution is supplementation with expressed breast milk and/or formula. Yes, this is a guide to breastfeeding, but formula isn’t poison, and every mom has the right to decide — without being judged — how to feed her baby, be it exclusive breastfeeding, combination feeding (both breast milk and formula) or formula alone.
Breastfeeding can be an incredible way to bond with your baby, but you can have an equally strong bond with your formula-fed baby. And although there’s a large body of evidence supporting the nutritional superiority of breast milk over formula, other studies have found that the benefits of breastfeeding may not extend beyond infancy.
You have the right to breastfeed in public
Since 2018, all moms have had the right to breastfeed in public in all 50 states. (Yep, it should have happened a lot sooner, but better late than never.) However, breastfeeding legislation varies by state. For example, Utah breastfeeding law protects mothers who are nursing in public against fines for public indecency but is still worded in a way that suggests they need to cover their breasts while feeding. Other states are much more progressive, such as New York, where breastfeeding rooms are required in all state buildings open to the public.
Breastfeeding can affect your mental health
The CDC estimates that 1 out of every 9 moms experiences postpartum depression, which is characterized by long periods of anxiety, irritability and sadness. And although there’s no causal link between breastfeeding and depression, moms who struggle with breastfeeding or don’t have people around them who support their choice may find that their mental health suffers.
So it’s crucial that breastfeeding moms look after themselves, physically and emotionally. It can be really hard to make time for this when you have a baby attached to your body 24-7, so lean on your partner, your mom, your sister, your friends — whoever you have around you who can take the baby for a walk so you can have a bath, take a nap or do something you enjoy. Never feel guilty about assigning tasks to other people, because you’re doing the most important job of all — feeding your child. Don’t forget the basics: eat healthily, drink plenty of fluids and rest as much as you can. (There’s a lot of sense in that well-worn tip, “Sleep when baby sleeps.”)
Chances are, you’re going to feel overwhelmed by breastfeeding on more than one occasion. And that’s totally OK. Lots of moms out there are feeling exactly the same way. Go to a local La Leche League meeting or join a breastfeeding support group to get the information, comfort and reassurance that will help make your breastfeeding experience a positive one.