Breastfeeding 101: The Ultimate Guide To Breastfeeding For Beginners
Myths about breastfeeding run rampant.
This guide has everything all new parents need to know!
Most new mothers in the United States attempt to breastfeed, but very few are breastfeeding a short time later. Many new mothers feel unempowered and unsupported to breastfeed successfully. Troubleshooting is often needed, but information is greatly lacking.
While some moms deal with significant issues like IGT (Insufficient Glandular Tissue) and other health issues which prevent successful breastfeeding, those instances are rare.
More likely is a scenario in which our formula culture has won, where our mothering instincts have been trampled by the corporations which prefer financial gain over a healthy child.
Traditionally, breastfeeding has been a learned art. Mothers, aunts, and grandmothers have passed down their wisdom and experience. Presently, with our lack of maternity leave and excess of infant formula, the art of breastfeeding has nearly been forgotten.
Image credit: ©Shannon O’Hara Photography
Most significantly, many mothers who wanted to breastfeed have been unable to, for a variety of reasons. Some new moms state that their breast milk never came in, or that it dried up after a couple months.
Physical conditions preventing lactation are rare, yet it is not uncommon for mothers to say their milk never came in or it spontaneously dried up. It’s possible that the real problem is not a physical inability to lactate, but rather misinformation about how the process of breastfeeding works.
Did you know that sending a new baby to the nursery after birth can disrupt the natural process of breastfeeding?
Did you know that using pacifiers or bottles is risky?
Did you know that frequent nursing, paired with adequate dirty diapers and weight gain, is normal, and not necessarily a sign of low milk supply?
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The misinformation and myths are effective “booby-traps” which frequently derail a successful breastfeeding relationship, and our society currently does very little to support and educate new moms. We say “breast is best,” but we fail to explain why it’s so important, or how to make it successful.
Did you know infant formula is linked to increased risk of serious illness?
Did you know infant formula is linked to increased risk of SIDS?
Did you know breastfeeding is linked to lower obesity and higher IQ?
Knowledge is power!
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It’s easy to see how breastfeeding can be challenging, and how it can be sabotaged if the conditions aren’t right. Not only is breastfeeding education limited, but new mothers are often sent home with a “breastfeeding support kit,” complete with free formula samples.
Sending formula samples home with new moms is dangerous and unethical, especially when we look at the reality that our lack of breastfeeding in the U.S. costs nearly 1,000 lives and billions of dollars every year. Artificial infant feeding is linked to a plethora of health issues, and the World Health Organization has created a code of ethics which hospitals are supposed to adhere to, which includes not promoting artificial infant feeding. And yet, the formula industry persists, knowing they put babies at risk.
It is also important to consider every baby’s natural “virgin gut“– the perfect balance of gut bacteria that is crucial to a life of good health. Breast milk maintains the ideal gut flora, and introducing foreign substances like formula, milk, solids when introduced too early, and even water can cause an imbalance in the body which can manifest into many different illnesses, from allergies to acid reflux to Crohn’s disease.
That in conjunction with new evidence that healthy gut bacteria has “a significant impact on brain development and subsequent adult behavior” tells us that starting and maintaining a solid breastfeeding relationship can be imperative for overall good health.
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Breastfeeding is a public health issue.
Not everyone wants to breastfeed, and not everyone can. But those numbers should remain small, for the health of mothers and children. Everyone who wants to breastfeed deserves to receive accurate information and support. The following is everything expectant and new parents need to know about breastfeeding.
Don’t “try” to breastfeed – plan to breastfeed
When we think of breastfeeding as a difficult thing to “try” at, instead of as the biologically normal, healthy way to nourish a child, we are already setting up mental barriers. Unless you are one of the rare women to have a diagnosed inability to produce breast milk, you can breastfeed. Similar to birth, if we believe that our bodies function well and can do what they are designed to do, we are less likely to reach for other options. Don’t stock up on formula or bottles, don’t plan to let anyone else feed baby – just breastfeed.
You will have colostrum
A sign of serious issues with breastfeeding awareness is that many parents do not know what colostrum is, nor do they know they will solely produce this substance until their milk comes in. Colostrum is a thick yellowish-brownish substance that comes out of the breast in tiny amounts and gives your baby everything they need in the first days of life. Some women experience their milk coming in on the first or second days; some women have nothing but colostrum for 5-7 days or more. Have no fear! Your newborn’s stomach is tiny and only needs a small amount of colostrum to be full. The more you nurse, the more you will produce. Once more for the people in the back! The more you nurse, the more you will produce!
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Learn about lip tie and tongue tie
Lip ties and tongue ties can negatively affect breastfeeding. Both ties can be subtle, and not all doctors know how to look for them. Babies with ties can be inefficient nursers; mom might hear a clicking sound when baby nurses, baby might lose weight rapidly, or may seem cranky and hungry like they’re not getting enough milk. Thankfully, it is easy enough to have tongue and lip ties revised. Learn more about this issue here and here.
Don’t attempt a schedule
Forcing a baby onto a schedule is sometimes known as “Babywise,” but it is so unwise that it can be disastrous. Any pediatrician that suggests otherwise needs to update his or her education. Babies need to be fed on their cue and anything else can lead to Failure To Thrive. It is important to notice your baby’s cues before they get to the crying stage, which is a late cue. It is hard to nurse a child that is screaming, so look for signs like rooting, sucking on hands, alertness, snuggling to the breast, etc. It is normal to feel like breastfeeding is happening 24/7, as long as baby is producing adequate diapers and gaining weight well for a breastfed baby.
Forget the formula
Refuse the “support kit” full of formula if you give birth in a hospital. Be sure to tell every nurse and doctor you see that you are breastfeeding, and not to introduce any bottles in the event that you are unable to be present. The best way to stimulate your milk is by breastfeeding frequently. If people want to give you a baby shower gift, let them know you will not be using formula but would appreciate breastfeeding supplies like Mother’s Milk tea (do not use if oversupply seems to be an issue), nipple butter in case you struggle with latch, or hot rice socks to help ease the tension when your milk first arrives.
Ditch the bottles
Although our lack of maternity leave in the U.S. is deplorable, most employed women get at least 6 weeks off from work, and during that time bottles should be avoided. Breastfeeding is a demand-supply situation; your baby has to nurse consistently in the beginning to establish a good supply. Introducing a bottle in the beginning, even if it’s a bottle of pumped milk, takes time away from the breast, which signals to the body that less mik needs to be made. Nipple confusion can also be an issue. This can happen because the act of nursing is different than drinking from a bottle, with nursing being a little more challenging, involving more work. The bottle nipple allows for much quicker eating (which may be why formula is linked to obesity), and the baby may gain a preference for the bottle, making him reject the breast.
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Nevermind the pacifiers
Children who are breastfed on demand have little need for a pacifier because the act of nursing is a pacifier in itself. Although some children who have already established a good nursing relationship may like a pacifier for extra comfort, pacifiers are generally needed much less than is insisted by our culture. Pacifiers should also be avoided because, again, they can interfere with establishing a solid milk supply in those early days. A new baby needs to be at the breast nursing as much as possible, so no substitutes are needed. It’s possible that the overuse of these substitutes that causes some women to “dry up.”
Plan on co-sleeping
Sleep-sharing of all kinds has many benefits, and one of them is assisting a normal breastfeeding relationship. If you are not comfortable with your baby in your bed, keep her in a safe sleeping space next to your bed, like a co-sleeper or a crib. Co-sleeping has gotten a bad reputation because of incredibly unfortunate deaths– but all of the reported deaths have been because of unsafe co-sleeping. Smoking, feeding formula, drinking alcohol or using other drugs are examples of unsafe co-sleeping. It is important to know the difference, but sleep-sharing is as old as time and has been done safely for generations. Crib-deaths are more common than co-sleeping deaths, but if you feel more comfortable with a crib, at least recognize that the idea of a separate nursery for your baby to sleep in is probably an unrealistic goal. Either way, newborns are not supposed to sleep more than a few hours at a time because they need to have their bodies regulated and be fed. The best, safest way to do this is by keeping your baby near and nursing him often, even through the night. There are many options for gentle night-weaning and transitioning from co-sleeping, but it shouldn’t be rushed. They are only babies once. Avoid any form of sleep-training 100%.
Don’t rely on pumping
Pumping is NOT an accurate way to tell how much milk you make, or how much milk your child gets. Some women have gone through incredible trials with pumping, herbs, and pharmaceuticals before being properly diagnosed with inability to lactate. Some moms need to pump or want to pump, but this should not be relied on as an accurate assessment of milk production. Instead of nursing frequently, moms are pumping to see how much they are making, then getting discouraged when it is only a few drops or a couple ounces. Not only is this an inaccurate way to tell, it can actually hinder the breastfeeding relationship. Not every mom responds to pumping, even if they have adequate or abundant milk supply. The most important thing is to keep your baby near and nurse, nurse, nurse. If you need to build up a stash of milk to return to work or for any other reason, try pumping on one breast while nursing on the other, or pumping in between each nursing session, instead of being tempted to supplement with bottled milk or formula. But unless your child is clearly malnourished, there should be no concern about “how much” your baby is getting. Breastfeeding is a biological process that is designed to work; have faith in that!
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Expect that your baby might not know how to breastfeed
Your baby to feel like a floppy bag of jello that doesn’t know how to nurse. Nursing at first can be quite awkward; babies are delicate and flimsy and they flop around like an octopus. Babies get impatient when they have to wait for their milk, and that frustration can lead to an intensely crying baby, which makes it even harder. Feed baby before they are crying; look for early cues of hunger. Try different positions. Get a Boppy or other breastfeeding support pillow. Be patient and remember to take deep breaths.
Don’t assume a crying baby means they’re not getting enough
I remember this fear very clearly after I had my first baby. He had a fussy period starting at 7pm almost every night for the first couple of weeks and I often wondered if he was “getting enough.” I assumed he was hungry and that’s why he was crying, and I figured I just wasn’t making enough. This is a common fear, but it is often unfounded. I have heard many times when nursing is derailed – “I tried but my baby wasn’t getting enough.” Babies do cry and sometimes it is impossible to figure out why. They don’t need you to panic and run for the formula; they need to be held close, worn in a comfortable wrap/sling/carrier, and nursed. They need shushing, rocking, or a diaper change. It is tempting to want to try something new if your baby is fussing and you don’t know why, but in the long run it is much safer to continue to nurse and forget about supplementing altogether.
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Breastfeeding will make you hungry, thirsty, and sometimes exhausted. Make a plate of snacks – or better yet, have someone make one for you – grab a drink, get your favorite book, movie, or podcast, and settle in. Get comfortable. Breastfeeding is your job, and it can be a demanding one. Take care of yourself!
If you have to return to work, commit to pumping
This one is frustrating, because while every other developed country in the world offers its workers parental leave, the U.S. fails miserably at helping its women workers meet the two-year mark of breastfeeding as recommended by health organizations. We deserve better maternity leave, but in the meantime, many companies are required by law to provide adequate nursing/pumping breaks. If you can find a personal nanny for your baby, or if your partner or family members can assist by bringing baby to you, you may be able to nurse every few hours while at work. If you cannot nurse at work, pumping is an option.
Nurse in public
It is not uncommon for a breastfeeding relationship to end because new moms turn to bottles instead of nursing in public. In cultures that embrace nursing women instead of shaming them, breastfeeding rates are beyond what the health organizations of the world recommend. Lactophobic cultures around the world need to learn that nursing is normal and that we have a legal right to do it as our child needs. Some moms cite their fear of nursing in public as their main reason for choosing formula, which means that our cultural attitude toward breastfeeding is directly affecting the health and quality of life of children. This is unacceptable. Put on your brave face and nurse in public!
Image Credit: Michelle Warren Photography
Change your diet – if you need to
Mothers with any type of diet should breastfeed, because it is the healthiest choice, regardless of diet. If you notice that your new baby seems extra fussy, instead of reaching for the formula, which will usually make things much worse, try eliminating foods from your diet. Some babies are very sensitive to foods like dairy, soy, nuts, caffeine, and sugar in breast milk. Many mothers have reported improvement after following an elimination diet.
Nurse, nurse, nurse
This really is the best way to begin and keep a good nursing relationship. We have been so fooled by our modern society into thinking that we need bottles, formula, pacifiers, gadgets, battery-powered infant play-mats, deluxe bouncers, etc. etc. For the most part we need a breast and maybe a sling to get some stuff done. It’s wise to avoid the temptation of letting other people feed your new baby, even though family members or even partners may feel that they are missing out. The most important thing is creating an excellent breastfeeding rapport, and there are many other ways for babies to bond. Visitors and family members can wear the baby in a sling while mom showers; dads/partners can practice skin-to-skin contact while baby-wearing for a beautiful bond. The best thing you can do for your breast milk supply is breastfeed frequently.
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Attend a La Leche League meeting
La Leche League is a support system for breastfeeding women, and they have meetings all over the world. You can probably find one near you, or at least contact a leader for guidance. They are excellent with troubleshooting and each group can be expected to have a wealth of knowledge on breastfeeding issues. They can observe your latch in the beginning to help prevent any discomfort, and you may find there is a whole host of other benefits to knowing the women of LLL.
If you’ve had a challenging birth, do not give up hope!
When a new mom has a cesarean birth or other traumatic birth (physically or emotionally), it may take her milk longer to come in. In the case of an emergency birth, it’s also possible that mom and baby will not be united for a while postpartum, during which time formula may be introduced by hospital staff. (Side note: if your baby is not in distress after a cesarean, you can request that (s)he be brought to you immediately for nursing.) When a baby ends up in the NICU it can also be very trying to the breastfeeding relationship. The best resource for this type of situation is here.
Image Credit: Maureen Cochran Photography
In special situations like this, induced-lactation is possible. Here is another adoption-induced lactation story. In some adoption situations, the new parents can request breast milk from the birth mother, is such a lovely gift for a birth mom to give. Donor milk is another option. Some parents immediately resist this idea, but upon inspection, human milk is much more normal to give a baby than milk from another species’ nipples, especially when the milk from another species is dried, all the nutrients are removed, and synthetic vitamins are added to the bovine secretions. Human Milk 4 Human Babies is a remarkable organization that finds local milk donors for women in need. It is completely grass-roots, totally Do-It-Yourself, and free! Wet-nursing and milk-sharing is not new; it is how babies survived before formula was invented if their mother died, had to find work, or was unable to lactate. It is safe because you can meet your donor, meet her family, watch her nurse her own children, see how she eats and lives. It is a beautiful option which needs to take the place of formula in our country.
Learning about the importance of breastfeeding is very inspiring and it is what kept me going when I was first experiencing nipple pain. There is a lot of literature available about breastfeeding, from the politics of it to advice for success. It is highly advised to learn about latch technique as well. One of the top complaints from new breastfeeding moms is pain or discomfort, which is usually a sign that a good latch has not been achieved. A lot of pain can be avoided by watching a few latch videos; seeing it in the real world can make more sense than reading a description.
If you are having problems, ask for help
Breastfeeding is NOT always a challenge. Some new moms experience discomfort, pain, or low milk supply; some women have no issues at all. Somehow, even though the World Health Organization recommends at least two years of breastfeeding, the breastfeeding rates in certain cultures around the world fall far short. In each case that is not a specific medical issue, something goes wrong that leads the mother to choose formula. Whatever problems we come across, we can hope to find answers for through La Leche League, local breastfeeding support groups, and the vast amount of resources to be found online and at your local library. Find breastfeeding moms in your area, ask breastfeeding moms in your family, or find a good lactation consultant at your local hospital or birth center. Commit yourself to breastfeeding, for the health of your child, and be aware of the option of donor milk if a true need does arise!
Image Credit: ©Shannon O’Hara Photography
What essential breastfeeding tips would you add to this list? Leave them in the comments!
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