The first six weeks are crucial to long-term breastfeeding. Here are the skills you need to stick with it.
When I was pregnant, I heard many a story about problems other women had with breastfeeding: bleeding nipples, painful engorgement and inadequate milk supply, to name a few. I knew that I wanted to nurse my baby and felt confident I could, but I wondered: Will this happen to me, too?
Luckily, it didn’t. Almost from birth, my son, Cobi, gulped hungrily at my breast and then rolled off, content. True, the early days were a blur, given my sleep deprivation and soreness from a long labor, but with a little preparation and support, I was able to breastfeed successfully. You can do it, too, especially if you focus on the first six weeks; that’s when you establish your milk supply and develop the skills that will help ensure success.
Read on for tips to help you make it through those first weeks and on to the full year that experts recommend.
1. Be Prepared. Before you have your baby, take a breastfeeding class, buy a breastfeeding book or watch a breastfeeding video. Better yet, do all three. “It’s a myth that women know instinctively how to breastfeed,” says La Leche League leader Katy Lebbing, B.S., I.B.C.L.C. “Breastfeeding is a learned art.”
Give yourself time and space to master this art. Prepare your house ahead of time: Stock up on necessities so you don’t have to worry about them after the baby is born. Create a nursing station complete with a comfy chair and a side table for snacks, water, nursing pads and burp cloths.
Once you have the baby, put aside other obligations. Nichola Zaklan, 46, of Portland, Ore., cleared her calendar for the first month after her daughter, Militsa, now 4, was born. “Don’t worry about anything else,” Zaklan suggests. “Don’t even write thank-you notes—you have the rest of your life for that.”
2. Find a Mentor. Breastfeeding might seem like a solitary activity, but it’s best not to go it alone. Historically, women learned proper techniques from their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and neighbors, says Corky Harvey, M.S., R.N., a certified lactation consultant and co-founder of The Pump Station, a breastfeeding-support center in Santa Monica, Calif. Women teaching women is still a great way to go.
Before you give birth, call a relative or friend who has breastfed successfully and ask if she’ll be available to help. Attend a La Leche League meeting after you have the baby. And consider a visit with a lactation consultant. Even if you’re not having problems, she can teach you the proper techniques. (Your hospital may have a consultant on staff; if so, arrange for a visit as soon as possible after delivery.)
3. Eat and Drink. You’ll need even more calories when breastfeeding than while pregnant—about 300 more per day than in the last trimester, even more if you’re exercising. But don’t go overboard; three well-balanced meals a day plus healthful snacks should cover it. Make sure you’re prepared: Fill up your pantry ahead of time, and ask family members and friends to stock your freezer with meals before you have the baby.
At your baby shower, ask a friend or family member to organize a “food train,” where friends and relatives take turns bringing you home-cooked meals for the first few weeks. After the baby arrives, prepare plates of finger foods (sandwich bites, hunks of low-fat cheese, trail mix, vegetables and fruit) to nibble on while you nurse.
Finally, keep in mind that breast milk is 87.5 percent water, so drink up—at least eight to 10 8-ounce glasses a day. Avoid caffeinated beverages, which are dehydrating.
4. Get Help. “New mothers need to be mothered to mother their babies,” Lebbing says. Accept help when it’s offered: Let friends and family members do a load of laundry, clean your bathroom or look after the baby while you shower. Ask a neighbor to watch an older child for a few hours. Also be sure to enlist your partner’s assistance. He can do all of these tasks, for example, or simply help you by holding the baby while you get comfortable and settled to nurse.
5. Don't Give in to Fear. Most women who stop breastfeeding do so for fear that they are not producing enough milk, Harvey says, but inadequate production is rare. If your baby nurses eight to 12 times every 24 hours, has six or more wet diapers and three or more bowel movements daily by day six, she’s getting plenty to eat. Nursing frequently (every one to three hours) should help you establish an ample supply.
6. Learn the Proper Latch. The majority of breastfeeding problems can be prevented with a proper latch. This is how you do it:
- Before putting the baby on your breast, position her on her side so she is facing you, with her belly touching yours.
- Prop up the baby with a pillow, if necessary, and hold her up to your breast; don’t lean over toward her.
- Tickle your baby’s lips with your nipple until her mouth opens wide, like a yawn.
- When your baby opens her mouth wide, quickly draw her to your breast. Place her lower jaw on the breast first, then the upper jaw.
- Make sure she takes the entire nipple and at least 11/2 inches of the areola in her mouth.
- See a pictorial step-by-step here
7. Catch Problems Early. If you do have problems, it’s important to correct them early on. Here are some of the most common ones:
Sore, cracked or bleeding nipples Mild tenderness is normal in the beginning, but severe pain or rawness usually indicates an improper latch. Review your book or video, contact your breastfeeding buddy or call a lactation consultant. In the meantime:
- Latch your baby on more deeply following the steps above.
- Nurse on your least-sore breast first.
- To remove the baby from your breast, break the suction by placing your finger in the corner of her mouth before moving her.
- Breast milk itself is soothing and moisturizing: Massage a small amount onto your nipples after each feeding and allow to air dry. Follow with pure lanolin. Don’t wash your breasts with soap; water is sufficient.
Engorgement Swelling of the breasts between the third and fifth day postpartum is normal—it’s a sign that your body is producing milk. As uncomfortable as it may be, any engorgement should subside in a day or two with frequent nursing. In the meantime:
- Apply a warm compress to the breast before nursing to stimulate milk flow.
- If the breast is extremely swollen, pump or hand-express your milk for a minute or two until the breast softens; otherwise, your baby may not be able to latch on.
- As you nurse, gently massage the breast toward the nipple.
- If pain or swelling is particularly bad, apply cold packs (try a cloth-covered bag of frozen peas) after nursing.
Leaking breasts This is a normal effect of your body adapting to nursing. Your supply should stabilize between the second and fourth month postpartum; until then, use nursing pads. If you leak on one side while nursing on the other, use a clean towel to catch the flow.
Slow letdown For some women, it takes a few minutes for the milk to start flowing after the baby latches on. If this happens, apply a warm compress to your breast or take a warm shower before nursing. You can also massage your breast or hand-express to stimulate milk flow. Relax, listen to music or light a candle while you nurse.
Fast letdown If forceful jets of milk overwhelm your baby, take her off your breast to let her catch her breath until the spraying subsides. Also try offering only one breast per feeding. “Your baby may fuss on the second breast if she wants to suck but can’t deal with Niagara Falls,” Harvey says.
Your investment in breastfeeding will pay off for you and your baby. At first, I holed up in my house, nursing only in the rocker with the pillow positioned just so, nursing pads and lanolin close at hand. Now all I need is Cobi, and all he needs is me.