The benefits of breast-feeding for both moms and babies are hard to overstate: Research suggests breast-fed infants will go on to have lower risks of developing health conditions like asthma and Type 2 diabetes, while other research shows that moms who breast-feed end up with a lower risk of certain types of breast cancer.
All of this is why experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and The American Academy of Pediatrics encourage new mothers to breast-feed their newborns exclusively for the first six months of life.
What’s not talked about as much, however, is that as natural as breast-feeding is, it's not that easy to figure out how to do it. “The most important thing for moms to know is that breast-feeding is difficult, and it is a learning process,” says Fahimeh Sasan, DO and assistant professor of Obstetrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. “For first-time moms, it can take several weeks to master the process.”
So if you’re having a hard time, don’t worry — you aren’t alone. We spoke to some experts to get some insight on what to expect, and some practical tips for making it easier.
First things first: Relax, says Chinyere Anyaogu, MD, vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York City Health and Hospitals/North Central Bronx. Yes, this is easier said than done when you have a screaming newborn, but the important thing to remember is that stress won't help you or your baby.
“The baby has to learn and may not be as good at breast-feeding the first day as the next,” she says, so don’t worry if things don’t always go smoothly.
And don’t worry about whether or not the baby is taking in enough milk with each sip — “as long as milk is being produced and you hear the ‘gulp’ of the swallow” after the baby suckles, Dr. Anyaogu says, you should be fine.
There are several ways you can sit with your baby to breast-feed — in bed, with your head propped up with pillows, in a chair, and so on. Dr. Anyaogu says the best way is any position in which you and your baby are the most comfortable. Here are a few different holds to try:
This one's ideal for early breast-feeding, according to the Mayo Clinic. Lay the baby on his or her side, bringing baby across your body so you're tummy-to-tummy. Use your right arm to support the baby’s body if you’re feeding with your left breast, and vice versa for the right side. Your open hand should support his head, and you can use your other hand to guide the breast to his mouth. Bring baby to you; don't lean toward baby.
Once your baby is a bit older and more experienced, you can hold her lengthwise across your tummy, using your elbow to support her head (and guide her to the breast) and your hand to support her bottom.
This one is key for those late-night feedings. With your back supported, lie on your left side and lay your baby on his side, facing you (chest to chest). Your right arm will support his body and your right hand will support his head.
The Football Hold
Hold your baby face-up and lengthwise, supported by pillows. If nursing on your right side, support her with your right arm, and vice versa for the left side. This position is good for women who are recovering from a C-section.
Position Your Baby
Once you're comfortable, you'll need to position the baby in a way that makes it easy for him to latch.
You might think that placing your nipple directly in front of the baby's mouth is the most obvious way for him to get the picture, but it's not so: To get your baby to latch, “the baby needs to begin the latch with their nose, not their mouth, lined up with the nipple,” explains Christine Staricka, International Board-Certified lactation consultant and spokesperson for the United States Lactation Consultant Association.
Once baby's nose is lined up with the nipple, Staricka continues, his mouth will open wide, and you can help by aiming your nipple towards the roof of his mouth. This, Staricka says, helps to get a “deep latch." A deep latch is optimal, both for comfort and for getting the most milk out.
This may take some experimentation, Staricka admits. Just make sure, of course, that the baby is facing your nipple (without having to turn his head) and that his ear, shoulder, and hip are all in one line, not twisted around.
“Mothers often blame themselves for ‘latching the wrong way,’ but often they simply need good information, assistance from an experienced person, and to have patience with themselves as they learn to do something they have never done before," Staricka explains. "It can be different with each new baby, even for the same mother.”
Nurse As Often As Possible
Nursing consistently can help you keep your milk production up; regularly emptying milk ducts is like a signal to your body that you still need to make milk.
Also important to remember? Feeding is more about your baby’s needs than it is about following a specific schedule.
“Try to nurse as much as possible using baby’s cues instead of watching the clock. Try for at least eight times in 24 hours for as long and often as the baby likes,” Dr. Anyaogu says.
Use A Breast Pump
Breast pumps can be lifesavers. On the occasion that you have to go back to work or travel without baby, they allow you to store extra milk so that you can still feed your baby breast milk throughout the recommended six months of exclusive breast-feeding.
Pumping even when you aren’t feeding can also boost milk production if you’re having trouble — again, emptying the milk ducts will notify your body that it needs to produce more milk.
Dr. Anyaogu advises that breast milk can be stored in the fridge for three to five days, in a regular fridge freezer for two weeks, and in a deep freezer for up to six months.
Don't Rely On Supplements
Many breastfeeding women deal with the worry that they are not producing enough milk. Thankfully, more often than not, this is an unfounded worry, Staricka says. Breast milk production can vary from woman to woman and even on a day-to-day basis, so just because you produced more yesterday or your best mom friend produces way more than you, it doesn't mean you're having a problem.
The best advice, if you're worried about it, is to speak with your doctor or a lactation consultant to make sure your baby is getting enough.
There are multiple myths about certain foods and supplements boosting milk production out there. But when it comes to increasing milk supply, the old adage applies: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
“There are no medications that have been shown to be beneficial or proven to increase breast milk production,” Dr. Sasan says.
Staricka adds that these pills — like lactation cookies or herbal concoctions — are too simple of a solution to such a complex problem.
In other words: When in doubt, always consult with your doctor or lactation specialist.
Get Some Rest
Breastfeeding might be about nourishing your baby, but don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.
“You can’t do everything,” says Martha Caprio, MD. “Make sure to try to get some well-earned rest, and reach out to family and friends for help if you need it. Your energy should be on enjoying the infant bonding!”
Ask For Help If You Need It
If you’re struggling and feeling like nothing is helping, don’t fret — that’s why doctors and lactation consultants exist. Seek advice from your OB or get a referral to a lactation specialist who can provide specific guidance.
Staricka suggests attending a prenatal breast-feeding class taught by a certified professional even before the baby comes, and attending a support group like Baby Café or La Leche League.
Breast-feeding (like many aspects of motherhood) is hard work, but it's worth the effort.
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