After months of pregnancy and hours of labor, you finally did it. You gave birth to a baby—and a hungry one at that. Luckily, you’re equipped with everything you need to feed your new little bundle of joy, with the possible exception of experience. “There’s a learning curve for both you and the baby,” says Amy Willoughby, accredited La Leche League leader and mother of two in Reno, Nevada. “Even though it’s natural, it’s not necessarily easy.” Getting the hang of breastfeeding can seem overwhelming to tired new moms at first, but most of them will end up agreeing that it’s absolutely worth it.
About a month before her due date, Ashley Gray, mom of one in Fair Oaks, California, attended her hospital’s breastfeeding basics class. “It was a great introduction to breastfeeding, especially because I thought it would be the easiest thing in the world,” she says. “Honestly, before taking the class, I was more worried about putting my son’s diaper on the right way than I was about feeding him. I figured he’d just tell me when he was hungry, eat for a few minutes, and we’d move on to more complicated tasks like taking baths and figuring out how to pull a bodysuit over his wobbly head. Boy, was I wrong.” After her son’s birth, Gray met with a lactation consultant who helped her with the latch and went over the basics with her once again. “I was in such a daze at that point though that the class beforehand proved to be the most helpful.”
Breastfeeding may seem intuitive, but most moms-to-be will benefit from a little schooling before the great nursing adventure begins. Consider signing up for a breastfeeding class, joining a nursing mothers’ support group, or asking your doctor to recommend a lactation consultant, all of which will give you ample opportunity to ask your burning questions. (No need to be shy! The pros have heard it all.) Plus, you’ll develop a more complete understanding of how the whole process actually works, which will no doubt increase your chances of breastfeeding success.
Talk to your partner and other family members about your decision before baby arrives. You’ll need them as part of your support system when the real fun begins. And be sure to inform your doctor and hospital about your decision to breastfeed as well. For Amanda Dair, mom of two in Warwick, Rhode Island, doing so gave everyone the chance to better accommodate her wishes. Since the nursing instinct of a newborn is very strong immediately following delivery, it’s best to breastfeed your baby as soon as you can after birth.
While we’re on the topic of things you can do ahead of time, here’s one thing you actually can steer away from: “toughening up” your nipples. While pregnant women were once advised to prepare their nipples for breastfeeding by rubbing them with a towel or loofah (ouch!), it’s seriously outdated advice. The best things you can do prebaby are talk to other breastfeeding mothers, take a class, do a little reading about technique and positions, and have faith in your own ability. You’ve got everything you need to be a thriving nursing mother, we promise.
The good stuff
Toward the end of pregnancy and for the first few days following baby’s birth, amazingly and all on its own, your body will produce a power-packed cocktail of vitamins, nutrients, enzymes and antibodies that’s tailor-made just for him. It’s one of the coolest parts of nursing. “It blew me away to think that I could satisfy my baby just by breastfeeding,” says Dair. “It was like everything was just the way it was supposed to be.”
What begins as colostrum, a thick, yellowy liquid just right for brand-new babies, will become mature milk a few days after birth. Packed with the perfect amounts of fat, protein, water and sugar, this thinner milk is exactly what your sweet baby needs to support his busy little system. “I don’t ever have to second-guess the fact that [my baby] is getting everything he needs to grow and be healthy,” says Gray. Because not only does your milk nourish your little one, it protects him too, which is a big part of the appeal for Amber Pizano, mom of one with another on the way in Allen, Texas. “Allergies run in my family, so I wanted to give my son and soon-to-be daughter the best immunity possible,” she says.
Study after study has shown the benefits of breast milk, including boosted immunity against everything from colds, ear infections and diarrhea to food allergies, stomach viruses and respiratory illnesses. A hefty dose of a substance called secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA) in your milk guards against invasive germs by forming a protective layer on the mucous membranes in your baby’s nose, throat and intestines. Formula-fed babies don’t get that protective layer, making them more vulnerable to allergies, infections, inflammation and other health issues.
There are long-term benefits to breastfeeding your baby too, including a reduced risk of future diabetes, obesity, childhood leukemia and other types of cancers. Breastfeeding has also been linked to a lower instance of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and even to higher IQs. What’s more, “There’s a sense of empowerment knowing that you are nourishing your baby this way, that you’re able to do this,” says La Leche League leader Willoughby. “It’s the main tool of mothering in the early months, and when you’re in the process of doing it, you realize just how beneficial it is to the baby.”
But babies aren’t the only ones to benefit from breastfeeding; there are plenty of advantages for moms too. Producing all that nutritious milk burns extra calories (hello, prebaby jeans!), and nursing releases oxytocin, a good-time hormone associated with nurturing and relaxation. Oxytocin also causes your uterus to contract after birth, which means less postpartum bleeding and a quicker recovery. Research indicates that women who breastfeed are more protected against certain cancers and osteoporosis later in life too.
Another perk? “I love the convenience of it,” says Jasmine Egely, mom of six with another on the way in Okotoks, Alberta. “No cleaning, making or warming bottles.” Breastfeeding is free, convenient and portable—bottles, ice packs and sterilization need not apply—and you never have to worry about your milk being recalled because of contamination.
Of course, that irreplaceable, indescribable one-on-one bonding time with your little one tops the list of breastfeeding bonuses. “The best part was having the quiet skin-to-skin contact and knowing that I was doing the best thing for my baby,” says Dair. “There is nothing better than the closeness you feel and the looks your baby gives you while nursing.”
Learning the ropes
“Babies have to nurse very frequently, and this is a good thing for a lot of reasons,” says Willoughby. Not only will your baby digest your milk quickly and easily, but as he transitions to his new environment, he’ll feel safest cuddled in your arms. Frequent nursing will also help establish your milk supply—the more you breastfeed, the more you’ll produce—and reduce your chances of severe engorgement, a painful swelling of the breasts associated with the sudden production of milk that often occurs in the first few days following delivery. While some engorgement is to be expected as your milk comes in, frequent nursing will help keep it far more manageable. If your breasts are very swollen and hard and it’s affecting your baby’s latch, try expressing a little milk before nursing and applying ice packs briefly afterward. And take comfort in knowing those ginormous ta-tas won’t stick around forever. Engorgement usually subsides within one to two days.
According to the La Leche League, healthy, full-term babies will breastfeed anywhere from eight to 12 times or more in a 24-hour period, so don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re spending every waking minute—and half the night—feeding your new baby. “Just because your baby is nursing more than every two hours doesn’t mean you don’t have enough milk,” says Willoughby. “Women can have their confidence really shaken because their babies may nurse more frequently than the average bottle-fed baby does.” Assure yourself by keeping track of your little guy’s wet and soiled diapers. If it’s going in, it’s got to come out, and new babies who are getting enough milk will produce at least five wet diapers and at least two to three mustard yellow, seedy poops per day. Keep in mind too that sometimes babies just want to nurse for comfort, not to fill their little tummies, and that’s A-OK.
When you’re baby is hungry though, he’ll tell you, so learn to read his cues. Your baby doesn’t have to be crying before you bring him to the breast. “Crying is a late hunger cue,” says Willoughby, and a crying baby can have a difficult time latching. Instead, be aware of earlier cues like rooting (when your baby opens his mouth and moves his head from side to side) and chewing or sucking his fists or fingers. “Your supply can get off to a slow start if you’re not watching those cues and feeding the baby as much as you can in the early days,” says Willoughby.
Getting it down
“The first six weeks were much harder than I anticipated,” says Gray. “Between the pain, the engorgement, and my back hurting from holding him while he nursed, it was rough.” Breastfeeding a tiny newborn may be a little trickier than inserting tab A into slot B (especially when the reality involves trying to jam a gigantic breast into the tiny mouth of a floppy, wriggling and possibly screaming newborn), but don’t let that scare you. There are all kinds of positions, techniques and tools to make it easier during those first crazy days. Some of the most common nursing positions include cradling, cross-cradling, the clutch or football hold, side-lying and the laid-back position. (Visit pnmag.com/positions for a helpful guide.) While the positions vary, keep in mind that your baby’s entire body—not just his head —should always be facing you, and you want him tucked in closely against you. Try different positions to see which works best for you and your little one, and keep your eyes on the prize. It doesn’t matter what you look like or how you get there. The goal is to be happily, triumphantly nursing your baby.
The real trick to successfully nursing is nailing the latch, simply getting your baby onto the breast in a way that is comfortable and effective. “I remember how shocked I was by how sensitive and painful it was to first latch the baby,” says Egely. “I remember wincing in pain and my whole body tensing up until the baby got going and the pain subsided. But—and a big but—it got so much easier really quickly. Soon I could plug her in without a thought.”
What’s the trick? There’s no single correct way to do it, but Jane Morton, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine, outlines five steps on the Stanford School of Medicine website that may help. “Gently touch your baby’s upper lip with the nipple. Wait for him to drop his jaw and tip his head up as he searches for the nipple,” she shares. “Bring him to the breast at the moment his mouth is wide open. Bring him to the breast in such a way that his lower jaw is far below the nipple, not at the base of the nipple. Get the nipple far back in his mouth. His chin, not his nose, should be pressed into the breast.”
If you feel comfortable and your baby is actively nursing, it’s a good latch. (He’s “actively nursing” when his cheeks are rounded, not sucked in, you can see his upper jaw and ear move, and you can hear him swallowing.) If it’s painful, and that pain doesn’t go away, or you hear clicking or smacking sounds, gently slide a finger into the corner of his mouth to break the latch and try again. Trying to tough it out will damage your nipple and make it even more painful the next time. Plus, your baby will likely grow frustrated, meaning you both may end up in tears.
“Nipple pain and poor latch is a big, common problem for a lot of women,” says Willoughby. It’s one of the main reasons so many women throw in the towel and opt for bottles and formula. “The hardest part was getting the hang of breastfeeding in general,” remembers Gray. “The first six weeks were pretty rough, and I thought about giving up a lot. I was still so sore from delivery, and nursing hurt really (really, really) badly, so it was pretty frustrating.”
But if breastfeeding is important to you, try to stick it out and give yourself and your baby time to learn. “I thought it would be intuitive, but it was definitely a learned skill,” says Pizano. “I went back to the hospital after week one and met with a lactation consultant for help.” This is when your support system comes into play. Having a supportive partner, friends and family can make or break your decision to continue nursing when you’re running on no sleep and find yourself dreading the next feeding. But take heart! “Once I hit that six-week mark, it was a breeze,” says Gray. “The pain went away, we got on a good schedule, and I wasn’t stressed about it anymore.”
The six-week mark is a good rule of thumb. Babies are that much bigger and new moms are that much calmer, which makes a big difference. Plus, Willoughby says that a lot of the common problems nursing moms run into can be resolved in that time frame, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. “Use the resources that are out there,” says Dair. “Join a support group, call a friend or your doctor, or use a trusted, well-researched website. Some babies need more time to get used to it than others.”
And keep in mind that while certain nursing challenges can be worked through on your own or with the help of a book, website, friend or phone call with a sympathetic lactation consultant, other challenges may need more professional, hands-on help. Setbacks like extremely sore nipples, plugged ducts, mastitis and other breast infections, and nursing strikes, among others, are best solved with professional assistance. Any concerns about your baby warrant a call to your pediatrician.
The very best advice is also the hardest. “Relax!” says Dair. “At the beginning when I was still getting in the swing of nursing, I was a little uptight. It’s better to relax and let nature take over. Once I relaxed, it became much more enjoyable for everyone.”