Breastfeeding is supposedly one of the most natural things mothers do, but the truth is that it isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t always feel natural.
But, for those who decide to stick it out (and those who are physically able to and whose baby is physically able to), breastfeeding can have numerous advantages for not only your baby’s health but also your own.
While the most important thing is that your baby is fed and happy, there is evidence that breastfed babies have stronger immune systems, fewer gastrointestinal problems, better vision, lower rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and improved brain maturation, among other benefits.
For moms, breastfeeding can help the uterus contract back to its pre-pregnancy size quicker, reduces postpartum bleeding, reduces the risk of urinary tract infections, anemia, and postpartum depression, and reduces the risk of various diseases over the course of your life, including breast and ovarian cancers, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, endometriosis, osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.
In honor of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, we want to take a moment to talk about the early days of breastfeeding, how to maintain a solid breastmilk supply, and where to find resources to help you along your breastfeeding journey.
Getting started: breastfeeding in the first few weeks
If you decide to breastfeed, you’ll likely feed your baby for the first time within their first hour life, during that precious initial skin-to-skin time.
That can be a little daunting. How will you know what to do? What if it doesn’t “work”? Will it hurt?
Most hospitals have a lactation consultant available, but you probably won’t see one until after your first attempt. So, what do you need to know?
Those first few days can be especially challenging as you recover from delivery, adjust to the idea of life without adequate sleep, and experience fluctuating hormones. It can be a physically painful and emotional time, so it’s important to first and foremost allow yourself some grace. It’s ok if motherhood feels hard, if you feel tired and weepy, and if you struggle to get breastfeeding figured out right away. Take help when you can, including multiple visits with the lactation consultant, if necessary. There is no shame, and there is no “normal” to how the transition to motherhood will go.
It might also be helpful to be prepared for the fact that breastfeeding often hurts at first, and that it will take up a lot of time.
- In the first few days, you might find that your nipples are sore and chafed from this new experience. That can be exacerbated by an improper latch – when a baby doesn’t use the most effective mechanics to feed. For instance, if the baby doesn’t get enough of your nipple into their mouth – a “shallow” latch – you might feel painful pinching (and your baby might not get enough milk). Whether your baby needs some practice latching correctly or your delicate nipples just need time to get used to the motion, a nipple balm is a handy tool to have ready in your hospital bag.
- Another pain you might not expect in the first few days is what’s known as involution, or “afterpain” uterine contractions. These are sharp cramps that occur as your uterus starts to contract back to its pre-pregnancy size, and they can feel worse while nursing since they’re triggered by oxytocin (which is released while breastfeeding). The pain appears to increase with each delivery, so you’re more likely to experience intense cramps with your second, third, or subsequent babies. A heating pad or over-the-counter pain relievers can help, but be sure to let your healthcare provider know if the pain is causing you significant stress, as this can interfere with your milk supply.
- Finally, you might be surprised to learn how much time goes into breastfeeding. This can be especially true in the first few days, as you work to establish your milk supply. Breastfeeding is a supply-and-demand system, so the more you feed your baby, the more milk your body produces to meet that need. Most new mothers are familiar with the idea that newborns eat every three hours, but it might be as frequently as every two It’s more important to watch for your baby’s hunger cues than to watch the clock, as waiting when your baby is hungry might impair your body’s ability to keep up with your baby’s hunger. (Not to mention, your little one might get cranky if they’re hungry.)
The transition to breastfeeding isn’t always easy, but your first line of defense is to be prepared and to be ready to accept help from a professional. Once you get through the initial challenge of figuring out the mechanics, you can turn your focus to making sure your baby is getting enough milk.
Maintaining your supply
Once you’ve made it through the first couple of weeks, you might find yourself concerned with your milk supply and wondering if you’re producing enough milk for your baby. Generally speaking, if your baby is gaining weight as it should and has regular wet and dirty diapers (see this visual from the USDA to know how many is “regular”), then you can probably assume your baby is getting enough. If you have any concerns, be sure to let your healthcare provider know.
But what if you’re not producing enough, or if you just want a little reassurance?
Breastmilk supply is directly related to demand. That means that the more often you feed your baby or use a pump, the more your body produces. That also means that the best way to build your milk supply is to feed “on demand,” or as your baby shows hunger cues.
That said, many women have found success boosting their milk supplies with lactation support drinks and teas for nursing moms that contain fenugreek, an herb that has been found to help increase milk supply in some mothers.
If you’re away from your baby for more than a couple of hours, you’ll want to use a breast pump to empty your breasts. Not only will this ease any discomfort and prevent excessive leaking, but it will also continue to signal to your body that it needs to keep producing breastmilk. If you have to go back to the office or plan to be away from your child for the workday once you return to work, you’ll need to pump in order to continue nursing. We have a handy infographic available to help you ace pumping at work and keep the milk flowing.
Speaking of flowing milk, you might find leaking to be a common occurrence – especially as your first establish a supply, find supply fluctuating through growth spurts, or are transitioning back to work for the first time. A collection of nursing pads can help keep you dry and comfortable, take some of the stress out of breastfeeding over the long haul, and protect your clothes against milk stains (and the smell that comes with them).
Overall, there are plenty of resources to help ease your concerns about maintaining your milk supply, and there are tools available to help make the experience a little easier.
Resources for your bookmarks bar
If you experience any issues while breastfeeding or just feel like you need a little support, a lactation consultant or your healthcare provider are great options. But if you’re just looking for a little bit of advice and information, here are a few links that can help make the breastfeeding experience a more positive one.
Resources for early breastfeeding:
- How to Breastfeed During the First 2 Weeks of Life: This detailed guide from The New York Times gives you a day-by-day rundown of what to expect and what to focus on when starting to breastfeed.
- Steps and Signs of a Good Latch: This simple tutorial from the WIC Breastfeeding Support division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shares the steps to a good latch, signs of a good latch, and tips for how to improve your baby’s latch.
- Breastfeeding your newborn: Your guide to the first week of nursing: Much like the above article from The New York Times, this piece from Motherly goes through early breastfeeding day-by-day to help you get started on the right foot.
Resources for milk supply:
- Low Milk Supply: This easy-to-follow page from the WIC Breastfeeding Support division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture helps you figure out if you’re producing enough breastmilk, shares causes of low milk supply, and offers suggestions for increasing your milk supply.
- How to Increase Milk Supply: This Momhood guest post from Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant Julie Cunningham answers all your questions about what to eat when breastfeeding, how to increase your supply, and how a lactation consultant can help.
- All About Your Breast Milk Supply: This Parents article goes over breastmilk supply issues, reasons you might find yourself in a supply slump, and signs that your baby’s eating enough.
Resources for breastfeeding problems:
- What No One Tells You About Breastfeeding: Our blog post is full of breastfeeding described in your own words, things to consider as your prepare to breastfeed, and challenges you might encounter over the course of your time breastfeeding.
- Coping With the Stress of Breastfeeding: This medically reviewed VeryWell Family post goes into the effects of stress on breastfeeding and how to cope.
- Staying Sane While Breastfeeding: Hacks Every Mom Needs to Know: This Momhood post is an oldie but a goodie, chock full of advice to make the day-to-day of breastfeeding feel a little easier.
This Breastfeeding Awareness Month – and always – we’re here to support you so you can soak in all the snuggles, baby giggles, and everything else that’s amazing about new motherhood.
Cleveland Clinic: The Benefits of Breastfeeding for Baby & for Mom
Healthline: Your Guide to Postpartum Recovery
USDA WIC Breastfeeding Support: Steps and Signs of a Good Latch
Today’s Parent: Involution: How to deal with postpartum afterpains
VeryWell Family: Coping With the Stress of Breastfeeding
Parents: All About Your Breast Milk Supply
The New York Times: How to Breastfeed During the First 2 Weeks of Life
USDA WIC Breastfeeding Support: How Much Milk Your Baby Needs