The Milky Way

Everything you need to know to be a nursing pro.

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Planning to breastfeed your baby? You should. Nothing compares to the intimate moments between a mother and her nursing child, and nothing—nothing—helps a baby get off to a healthier start in life.

Hundreds of studies have proved the short- and long-term benefits of nursing: It decreases the incidence not only of diarrhea, ear infections and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in babies, but also of diabetes, obesity, asthma, leukemia, bacterial meningitis and even some forms of lymphoma later in life. What's more, research has shown that premature babies who are fed breast milk do better on tests of mentaldevelopment later in childhood than those given formula. These benefits likely apply to full-term babies as well.

There are plenty of proven perks for mothers, too: Breastfeeding reduces a woman's lifetime risk of developing ovarian and breast cancers, as well as osteoporosis. Convinced? Keep reading and find out virtually everything you need to know to get off to a good start.

Top Keys to Success

To help you get off to a good start with breastfeeding, lactation consultants recommend following a few vital steps:

Plan ahead. "You need to prepare," says Mary Lofton, a former public relations manager for La Leche League International. "You wouldn't throw a dinner party without planning the menu, shopping and even preparing dishes ahead of time. Think of those first few breastfeeding sessions as the most important dinner party of your and your baby's life." The best way to prepare for this party is by taking a breastfeeding class, either through La Leche League (llli.org) or at a birthing center or hospital.

Choose the right hospital. If there's a "baby-friendly" hospital or birthing center in your area, consider having your baby there. These facilities are certified by the World Health Organization and UNICEF as offering optimal lactation services. (For a list of certified facilities, visit baby friendlyusa.org.) If you don't have a site near you, choose a hospital that has certified lactation consultants on staff.

Breastfeed ASAP. Most newborns are alert and ready to nurse right after birth but fall into a sleepy period for the next 24 hours or so, which can make it more difficult for them to feed. So let your baby nurse within 30 to 60 minutes of delivery—and be sure to inform the nurses of your intentions before she's born. Also request that your baby be allowed to "room in" with you throughout your hospital stay so you are able to nurse as often as she wants.

If you have a Cesarean section, ask the nurses to bring your baby to you as soon as possible after delivery. They or your partner may need to help you hold her due to the effects of your anesthesia, but there is no reason you can't breastfeed.

Common Problems, Tested Solutions

1. Problem: You've got pain. You may feel discomfort when your baby starts to nurse, but it should be mild and short-lived. "Feeling tenderness when the baby latches on is normal," says Corky Harvey, M.S., R.N., a lactation consultant and co-owner of The Pump Station in Santa Monica and Hollywood, Calif. "But it shouldn't last for more than 20 seconds."

Your breasts aren't the only place you may be uncomfortable: After the baby is born, your uterus starts contracting back to its normal size. These contractions can be painful, and breastfeeding can intensify them: The baby's sucking stimulates the release of oxytocin, which causes the uterus to contract.

Solution: Be proactive. If you experience pain that is severe or lasts longer than 20 seconds, make sure your baby is latched on correctly (see "How to Get the Right Latch"); if she's not, gently remove her from the breast and start over. Still having problems? Call a lactation consultant.

If your breasts become engorged, nursing or pumping frequently should help relieve the discomfort. Also, apply cool compresses or an ice pack.

To help with uterine pain, you can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen—both are safe while nursing. If you had a C-section, be sure to take your painkillers. Minimizing pain will make for an easier time breastfeeding.

2. Problem: Your baby nurses all the time. Because breast milk is digested more easily than formula, breastfed newborns do need to refuel more often than their formula-fed peers. "Breast milk comes prepackaged with its own digestive enzymes," explains Lori Feldman-Winter, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Executive Committee on Breastfeeding, "so the proteins and other nutrients are more readily absorbed by the infant's intestines." This translates to an average of 10 to 12 feedings in 24 hours.

Solution: Go with the flow. Let your baby set her own meal schedule, and try not to stress about it. "We are a society devoted to efficiency," Feldman-Winter says. "Bottle-feeding may be more efficient, but if you accept that having a baby will change every single thing about your life, you might not worry so much about how often your breastfed baby wants to eat." If you're wondering whether your baby is nursing for hunger or comfort, don't. "Sucking triggers milk production," Harvey explains, "so it's important to let your baby suckle as often as she wants, regardless of the reason."

3. Problem: Is she getting enough milk? When a baby feeds from a bottle, it's easy to tell exactly how much she's eating. Unfortunately, that's not the way it is with the breast.

Solution: Count wet diapers. Once your milk comes in, usually three days after delivery, your baby should have at least six to eight wet diapers a day. Most breastfed babies will also have at least two yellow, seedy bowel movements every 24 hours. If you have any concerns, call your pediatrician.

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