Updated: Jun 1
Your body is amazing! Not only do your pregnancy hormones support your growing baby but they also prepare your breasts for breastfeeding. Having nurtured your baby to birth you can assume your body will nurture your baby in the outside world also. That’s not to say that breastfeeding is easy. In fact, it can be extremely challenging for many different reasons.
Some of the greatest challenges stem from misinformation. There is no better way to prepare yourself than to learn about how breastfeeding works for both you and your baby. A fantastic way to do this is to attend a focused breastfeeding class either in person or online with a lactation consultant. When you are armed with the knowledge you will be able to sift out the helpful from the not-so-helpful information that comes in the early weeks.
The benefits of breastfeeding
The health benefits of breastfeeding for mum and baby have been very well documented. The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months and then continuing breastfeeding for 2 years and beyond. The greatest benefits of breastfeeding are:
Bonding with your baby - Breastfeeding is something only you, as a mum, can do for your baby. The act of breastfeeding causes a surge in oxytocin (your ‘love’ hormone) which strengthens your bond with your baby and has a calming effect on your body.
Recovery from birth and return of your pre-pregnant body - The surges of oxytocin during feeding helps your uterus contract to its pre-pregnant size and the energy your body burns to produce milk can be a great way to lose excess pregnancy weight.
Contraception - Ovulation is delayed whilst breastfeeding which means no bleeding for several months. If your baby is less than 6 months old and exclusively breastfeeding you have 98% contraceptive protection (this means that 2% of women WILL fall pregnant whilst exclusively breastfeeding!)
Improved health outcomes - Breastfeeding reduces your risk of ovarian, uterine, endometrial and breast cancers, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes. Mums who have type 1 diabetes tend to require less insulin as breastfeeding helps to control their blood sugar levels.
Protection from Sleep Deprivation! - An incredible sleep hormone (Cholecystokinin) is released whilst breastfeeding. This is why you feel very relaxed and calm after a feed. This hormone gives you superior quality sleep so that a quick nap will refresh you in the same way a 6-hour sleep used to!
Cost-effective - It costs nothing to breastfeed. Milk is continually replenished and requires no special equipment.
Benefits of breastmilk
Breast milk is the most perfect food in existence! It is ever-changing to suit your baby’s growing needs as well as providing your baby with adequate immunity until they are able to be vaccinated in later weeks. Breast milk contains antifungals, antibacterials and many other factors that protect your baby from serious illness and disease.
Did you know that when a breastfeeding mother comes into contact with a virus, she makes antibodies to that virus which are then passed on to her baby through her breast milk (including Covid-19)?
Breastfed babies are also at a reduced risk of respiratory, urinary tract and gastrointestinal infections, ear infections, asthma, allergy, diabetes, dermatitis, coeliac disease and cancer.
Other breastmilk benefits
Self Regulation - your milk contains the hormone Leptin which helps the baby to feel full so he stops feeding when he’s had enough. Always feeding to his appetite regulates your milk supply to follow his needs. It is not possible to overfeed breast milk.
Peaceful Sleep - the hormone Cholecystokinin gives the baby a sense of calm and encourages deep, peaceful, quality sleep (not necessarily long periods of sleep!)
Adequate nutrition and fluids - your breast milk adjusts to your baby’s growing needs, and changes with the weather and the time of day! It provides exactly the right amount of sugar and fat, vitamins, minerals and so much more.
Help with digestion - breast milk is easily digested and contains a laxative which is why breastfed babies are rarely constipated.
Your breasts are designed for breastfeeding! Your breasts know what they’re doing! You start to produce milk as early as 16 weeks into your pregnancy. Colostrum is ready for the baby from the moment of birth and, after a few days, milk is produced. No two breasts are the same, each producing a different volume of milk at different times of the day. The more your baby feeds, the more your body will respond to your baby’s needs and continue to produce milk to match his growing needs. It is rare to be unable to produce enough milk for your baby when you follow your baby’s lead.
Baby's Hunger Cues
Feeding is instinctive for your baby’s survival. And your baby’s survival instinct is very strong. Let your baby’s body language be your guide - when he opens his mouth, licks his lips and turns towards you he is showing hunger cues; when his eyes are drooping and he gives a tired yawn he is showing tired cues. Watch your baby, not the clock - a clock can’t possibly tell you what your baby needs….) Trust that your baby will always feed to his appetite to meet his needs. Your baby knows how often and how much milk he needs. He knows what he's doing! But it is a learned skill for you as a new mum. Be patient with yourself as you take time to perfect your craft.
A guide to breastfeeding
Skin to Skin
Hold your baby close to you as many hours of the day as possible, not just when you’re feeding. Skin-to-skin contact at times other than when you’re breastfeeding helps to:
lower stress hormones in your body due to tiredness, pain or feeling overwhelmed;
stimulates your breastfeeding hormones so you can produce more milk;
helps you gain confidence by noticing your baby’s subtle feeding cues;
Keeps the baby warm and regulates heart and breathing rates.
Babies need to feed quite frequently in the early weeks. It’s normal! Breast milk takes less than an hour for your baby to digest so he will need to refill his belly very frequently. One to 6 hours or more between any two feeds is normal.
Let your baby set the pace
There’s no set timing he needs to follow (babies do NOT need to feed every three or four hours and do NOT need to be woken to feed). When your baby is hungry he will wake himself and show you his hunger cues. His appetite guides his feeding needs so he will space his feeds in whichever way he chooses over a 24-hour period. It is very sporadic in the first few weeks with little naps in between.
When the baby latches well you will feel comfortable and you’ll hear your baby gently swallowing with every suck. Painful feeding or damaged, squashed nipples is NOT normal and is a sign your baby is not latching well. Not only is it painful for you but it often leads to a low milk supply. The initial 10 secs after latching can be quite uncomfortable but it should ease to a pleasant sensation after this time.
Sit comfortably with your back well supported (you can recline as much as you prefer). Pillows are good supports for your back and shoulders (you do not need a pillow for your baby).
Position your baby in a bum-down-head-up position, with his body falling into yours for support. The baby should be positioned so its chin lifts and its lips rest on your nipple.
Angle your nipple to reach the baby's top lip.
Watch him reach up with his face to take a large mouthful of breast. (note that your baby takes a mouthful of the breast - don’t push him onto the breast)
You should feel a strong but pleasant tug on your nipple and hear your baby swallowing.
Any time is a good time to seek support with your breastfeeding journey. Breastfeeding is not always easy and can make some mums feel really discouraged. It takes time to feel comfortable and confident but don’t be afraid to reach out for help, even in the first few days. A few key tips can help you feel on top of things more quickly and give you the confidence you need to continue.
The Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) have a fantastic 24-hour phone support service for breastfeeding mums as well as local groups where you can meet other new mums and share the journey. An International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) is a breastfeeding expert who can help with all things related to breastfeeding from birth until weaning. Your GP, paediatrician or obstetrician are perhaps not the best sources of breastfeeding support and information as they have little breastfeeding education as part of their training.
Tips for breastfeeding in public
Given that babies feed quite sporadically it is possible that you will need to feed in public at a time you’re not feeling quite ready! Try to find a comfortable place to sit - this doesn’t have to be hidden away in a parent room - it might be a seat in a shopping mall or a park bench or leaning up against a tree. Just somewhere you can sit for a while.
Breastfeeding tops are quite good now at enabling discrete feeding in public or you might like to have a muslin wrap handy to drape over your shoulder. It can take some time to feel confident enough to feed in a public place. You are likely to feel like everyone is watching you but, in reality, they’re not!
If it’s in the stores then you must need it at some point, right? Wrong!
If you’ve got breasts then you stand a pretty good chance of breastfeeding! And when breastfeeding is going well then you’ll realise that you will never use most of the paraphernalia on offer in stores. It’s a huge industry relying heavily on your vulnerability with beautiful packaging and clever marketing slogans (ie ‘closest to nature’).
Here are some helpful tips on what supplies might actually be of use to you in the early weeks.
Comfortable, well-fitted nursing bra/crop top for day and soft cross-over bra/ crop top for night feeds
Comfortable clothing with easy access to your breasts
Sling / upright style baby carrier
Nursing pads - cloth or bamboo reusable are comfortable and cost-effective
Towels/flannelette cloth squares for catching milk drips, dribble and vomit!
Nipple cream/gel breast pads for tender nipples if needed
Believe it or not, a breast pump is not an essential item for breastfeeding, however, if you choose to purchase one, an effective and efficient pump is a Spectra or Medela. Always seek expert advice when using a pump or bottles whilst breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding really can be a wonderful experience. Arming yourself with an understanding of how breastfeeding works and having realistic expectations will help you cope with the madness of caring for a newborn! Take your time to enjoy and follow your baby. Listen to and watch out for his cues. He will be a wonderful teacher! Trust your mummy gut and do what feels right for both you and your baby. In just a short time you will find your breastfeeding confidence.
Happy breastfeeding :-)
This article was written by Rowena Gray a mother to 3 young daughters, nurse, midwife and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and has been both a consumer and giver of copious amounts of breastfeeding advice! She has a private practice in Melbourne, Aus.
Rowena is also the author of ‘Born to Breastfeed - the first six weeks and beyond
To learn how to breastfeed book into our Baby Basics Masterclass and Rowena Gray will set you up for breastfeeding success.