Breastfeeding is a skill that takes time to master. Dr Juliet McGrattan share her tips to help get you started.
For some women and babies, breastfeeding happens easily. Right from the start, baby latches on well and feeds go very smoothly. However, for the majority of women and babies, this is not the case.
Breastfeeding is a skill that takes time to master. Getting started can be challenging but it doesn’t usually take long before women feel confident and feeding becomes second nature.
1. Be prepared
If you think you would like to breastfeed, learn as much as you can about it when you are pregnant. Read, talk to other mothers and to your midwife. Antenatal classes are a great place to find out more. Feeling as prepared as possible will help you get started. But do keep an open mind. Breastfeeding is a different experience for everyone. Knowing that it might not go smoothly and that having some difficulties is entirely normal, will make you feel less stressed when it isn’t going to plan. Breastfeeding doesn’t always come ‘naturally’. Only do it because you want to and take it one day, or one feed, at a time.
2. Stay calm
You might be aiming for quick feeds in a café or while multi-tasking, but in the early days it’s important to take your time and focus solely on feeding. Milk flow is triggered by the hormone oxytocin. This is released simply by feeling close to your baby and knowing they need to feed. Your breasts will tingle and suddenly feel fuller. You may even begin to leak milk from one or both breasts. This is called the ‘let down reflex’ and it happens more easily if you are calm and relaxed. If feeds aren’t going well or your baby is frantically searching for milk, it’s easy to panic and get stressed. Take your time. Turn off your phone. Find somewhere you won’t be disturbed. Perhaps take some deep breaths. Being skin to skin with your baby can help you feel this closeness. If baby is gulping, spluttering, or getting upset, then detach them from the breast and try again. Be patient with yourself and your baby and try to stay calm.
Take your time. Turn off your phone. Find somewhere you won’t be disturbed.
3. Find the right position
You’ll usually see women breastfeeding with their baby in their arms in front of them but this isn’t always the easiest position in the early days when baby is very small. Experiment with different positions to see what works for you. Try feeding lying down with baby lying on the bed beside you. The ‘rugby ball’ position where baby’s body is tucked under your arm can be successful too. You might find a particular chair and arrangement of cushions suits you. All breasts, nipples and babies are different and the best position will change as your baby gets bigger and you get more confident. Whatever position you choose, baby should look comfortable with their head and neck straight, their chest and tummy facing you and their mouth in line with your nipple so they can latch on correctly.
Signs of a good latch include:
- A good latch will be pain free.
- A portion of the areola (area around the nipple) will be in baby’s mouth.
- The baby’s chin will be pressed up against your breast.
- The baby’s nose will be clear from the breast so they can breathe.
- You’ll see and might hear them swallowing.
4. Get to know your breasts
Getting into a comfortable feeding position often feels easier on one side. It’s also normal for one breast to get larger than the other and for one breast to produce more milk too. Don’t always feed from your favourite side. It’s important to feed from both equally to stimulate milk production. Alternate the breast you offer your baby first. You could put a little safety pin on your bra that you move from side to side to help you remember and some breastfeeding bras have a little tab or ribbon for this purpose. Breast size is unimportant; small breasts can supply enough milk. The first milk that comes out is called colostrum and it is very rich and nutritious and contains antibodies which help baby fight off infections.
5. Get to know your baby
It takes time to learn your baby’s hunger cues. It can be hard to work out what is hunger and what is just tiredness or a need for comfort. A hungry baby often pops their tongue out, opens and closes their mouth and moves their head as if looking for milk. Feed them when you think you need to, for as long as your baby wants to. It might be a long feed or a short snack. Both are fine; be guided by your baby. Routines are all well and good but don’t always fit with breast feeding. Just when you’re settling into a pattern your baby has a growth spurt and it all goes out the window. Be flexible and don’t set expectations. You will soon understand your baby’s needs and feel confident you are meeting them.
It takes time to learn your baby’s hunger cues.
6. Look after your breasts
It’s important to take care of your breasts when you are breastfeeding. The right bra is crucial. Get a professional bra fitting if you can. Your breasts may be much larger and heavier than normal and will need more support. You may find wearing a soft bra when you sleep makes you feel more comfortable. Keep an eye on the skin of your breasts. Red, hot or tender areas may indicate a blocked duct or mastitis (inflammation in the breast tissue). See your midwife, health visitor or doctor if this happens and feed regularly to avoid them becoming too engorged. Take care of your nipples by washing them with a perfume-free soap, drying them carefully and applying a lanolin ointment if they become sore or cracked.
7. Nourish yourself
Mother Nature will make sure that your breast milk is high quality and full of goodness for your baby but you can help by making sure you eat a healthy diet full of a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. Breastfeeding makes you hungry, so snack frequently on healthy foods such as crackers with hummus, cheese or avocado. Keep well hydrated, especially if the weather is hot or you are doing exercise. Have a big drink of water every time you feed. Consider taking a vitamin D supplement (10 micrograms) and ask your midwife or health visitor about vitamin D supplements for your baby if they are exclusively breastfed. Nourish yourself with love and care too. Make time for yourself so you can relax and enjoy laughing with friends or pampering yourself.
- Congratulate yourself
Take pride in what you are doing: mastering a new skill and helping your baby to grow and thrive. You can tell if breastfeeding is going well if your baby is passing lots of urine, having lots of dirty nappies and gaining weight. They’ll enjoy their breast milk so much and fall into a lovely, happy drowsiness when they get to the end of a feed. Even if you find it hard to begin with, breastfeeding gets easier and your confidence will grow over time. At whatever point you decide to stop breastfeeding, just be proud of what you have done.
9. Ask for help
Breastfeeding is a skill. It takes time for both you and your baby to learn it. Don’t be upset or disillusioned if you feel it doesn’t come naturally. Many women feel the same. Never be afraid to ask for help if you need it. There are lots of resources and support available, for example:
- Your midwife
- Your health visitor
- Your GP
- Local breastfeeding counsellors or lactation specialists
- Baby cafes is some areas
- National Breastfeeding Helpline– phone and webchat support
- NCT infant feeding line – phone support
- La Leche League – information, groups and online or telephone advice