What to Know About Breastfeeding Before and After Birth
Breastfeeding, as natural as it is, can be an overwhelming process. That’s why it’s good to be informed about what to expect and how you can optimize the process, both before you give birth and after.
To learn about the absolute musts of breastfeeding, we spoke to Nekisha Killings, MPH, CLC, IBCLC, a lactation consultant and equity strategist in Los Angeles. Here are 15 things to know about breastfeeding before and after birth.
It’s Natural, But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy
Many parents think that since breastfeeding is how babies have been fed for millennia, that it will come easy to both them and their child. While this may be true for some mother-baby dyads, it’s key to remember that feeding at the breast is a learned behavior for both you and baby. Sometimes, it may take troubleshooting and effort to make it work successfully.
“It’s important for families to know that although breastfeeding is the biologically natural way that we’re engineered to feed our young, sometimes it takes a bit of work and help to get off to a solid start,” advises Killings.
Education Is Your Friend
According to Killings, “One thing parents can do to increase their chances of success is to prepare. It’s a great idea to attend a prenatal breastfeeding class and to identify some local resources for support just in case things don’t go as planned.”
Most hospitals and birth centers will offer breastfeeding classes to expectant parents. There is a wealth of information in books and on reliable websites, too. You may even find it helpful to go to a La Leche League or other breastfeeding support group while you’re still pregnant, just so you can see people breastfeeding and understand the types of questions and challenges they may be having.
Get an Idea of What’s Normal
Lots of people have never seen someone breastfeed before. Before you give birth, watch some videos on newborn latch, positioning and overall breastfeeding (YouTube has literally hundreds of these). Ask friends who are currently nursing if you could hang out for a bit to see what things are like. Understanding what normal breastfeeding looks and feels like will help you have clear expectations for your own experience.
The Policies at Your Birthplace Can Make a Big Difference
No matter where you’re giving birth, ask careful questions about the policies and procedures your birthplace has around birth and breastfeeding. Immediate skin-to-skin after birth and a policy of rooming-in (when babies stay in the room with their mothers instead of going to a nursery) can make a big difference in supporting initial breastfeeding.
These, and other evidence-based approaches to breastfeeding in hospitals, are part of the World Health Organization’s 10 Steps to Successful Breastfeeding. Hospitals and birth centers that follow all of the steps receive a “Baby-Friendly” designation. Find out if your hospital has this designation or not. If not, what do they do to support breastfeeding immediately after birth?
It’s also useful to know what to expect at your hospital if your baby needs time in the nursery or NICU — two things that can strongly affect early nursing.
Babies Can Self-Attach to the Breast
Ever heard of the “breast crawl”? It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a baby crawling to the breast. We’re not talking about a big six-month old who is mobile either. A newborn baby is actually fully capable of moving him or herself to the nipple and latching on.
This process can seem foreign to many parents who are used to babies needing a great deal of assistance to feed at the breast, but the breast crawl is a normal mammalian process. Knowing about the breast crawl may boost your confidence in your baby’s own inborn feeding abilities.
Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Support
Killings says, “One common reason why families are not successful at breastfeeding is a lack of support. Starting in the hospital, many families find that getting the help they need may prove to be more difficult than expected. Minor issues with latching or positioning in those first days — if not corrected — may begin to impact the natural demand-and-supply mechanism by which breastmilk is produced. It doesn’t take long for things to spiral into more complex issues. You want to avoid this pitfall by getting competent support early and often."
Research lactation consultants (IBCLCs), postpartum doulas and breastfeeding support groups in your area before you give birth. That way, you’ll have some ideas of where to go if you need help with latch, positioning and more.
Breastfeeding Isn’t Just for Your Baby — It Benefits You, Too
Most people are aware that there is strong research that finds breastfeeding is ideal for your baby’s health — but it can actually help yours, too. Breastfeeding helps your uterus contract and recover from childbirth, and can also lessen bleeding. Producing milk also burns about 500 calories per day, so some people who breastfeed find that it assists in postpartum weight less.
Even better? People who breastfeed have a lower risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
Know Your Baby’s Stomach Size
A newborn’s stomach, at birth, is very small. Some say it’s the size of a cherry or a marble, but most agree it’s definitely smaller than a ping-pong ball. No wonder your baby wants to eat so very frequently, right? Killings says, “In those first hours and days, it’s important to realize that your baby’s tummy is tiny! They don’t need a large amount of milk.”
Understanding this may make the frequent feedings easier to bear. Just plan that you will be spending most of your time in the first few weeks of your baby’s life breastfeeding. This is normal. With time, your baby won’t need to feed quite so often.
Skin-to-Skin Will Help
Although it may be tempting to dress your baby up in all those adorable little outfits you received as gifts, one of the best things you can do to promote milk supply and bonding in the first few days is keep your baby skin-to-skin with you. Research has demonstrated that skin-to-skin contact helps babies modulate temperature and self-attach to the nipple. Plus, it increases oxytocin (one of the hormones involved in breastfeeding) for both mother and baby.
Staying topless is a little awkward for some parents, but ensuring your baby (dressed in a diaper) has easy and immediate access to the nipple can assist with latch and feeding cues. Baths are another way to enjoy some simple skin-to-skin time with your baby.
Know How to Hand Express
Yes, you can express milk from your breasts using only your hands! Hand expression is a useful skill to have directly after birth, as you can get some golden drops of colostrum (the sticky yellow first milk), as well as when breastfeeding continues.
In fact, according to research in the Journal of Perinatology, combining hand expression with pumping can increase your milk supply over the long run. It’s pretty easy to do, too — check out this video from hand expression expert Dr. Jane Morton at Stanford University to learn how.
Consider Nursing Lying Down
While all of the pillows and positions you may have heard about or seen can certainly be right for some breastfeeders, don’t assume you always have to nurse sitting up in bed or in a chair. “Laid-back” breastfeeding (sometimes called biological nurturing) can be much more relaxing and less taxing to your back and arms.
In this position, mothers lie down and babies lie against their bodies, so it provides good bodily contact, which can promote your baby’s natural instincts to feed. Lots of mothers find it incredibly easy and enjoyable to feed this way.
Partners and Family Members Matter, Too
Breastfeeding isn’t only about the mother and baby. The support and attitudes of your partner and other family members can have a big impact on how you feel about breastfeeding, especially if it’s difficult.
Make sure that everyone in your support circle understands your goals and desires around breastfeeding and is willing to support — rather than undermine or second guess — your efforts.
There Are Tools to Help You
You’re probably already familiar with the idea of a breast pump, but there are other tools that can help you breastfeed in the early days or when you need to keep up your supply. A supplemental nursing system (which consists of tubes that you tape to your breasts to feed donor milk or formula at the breast) can be great for preemies.
Nipple shields can help with inverted nipples or give the nipples a break as your baby is learning to latch. Both SNS and nipple shields should be used with the guidance of a lactation professional. Collection cups, which collect the milk that leaks on the other side as you feed on one side, are also a useful option.
Your Nursing Relationship Will Change
Know that breastfeeding doesn’t always look the same, for both mom and baby. It may feel tough in the beginning, but then it gets easier a few months in. Once baby is mobile and starts eating solid foods, it may change again.
This is true, too, if you continue nursing on into toddlerhood. The nursing relationship is a dynamic one, so be prepared for change, growth and development.
Your Emotions Matter
Breastfeeding is a journey, with its own ups and downs. You may find that things get a lot harder once you return to work and need to pump on a schedule or as baby grows and you need to make more milk.
Listen to yourself and your needs, too — because breastfeeding isn’t only about your baby. If it feels right to supplement with formula or donor milk or eventually stop breastfeeding altogether, it’s fine to make that choice. Your baby will feel your love no matter how you feed.