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You've read books, visited chat rooms, taken classes, made the (very smart) decision to breastfeed. You're ready, right? Mentally, yes, but once your baby makes his entrance, you're faced with the prospect of actually doing it—of maneuvering his tiny, floppy head onto your swollen breast and coaxing him not only to latch on, but to draw enough of that liquid gold into his body to sustain himself for the next hour, the next day, the next six months. We're here to help, with real-world tips to get you through those first hours in the hospital and first weeks at home.
1. Hop to it. Early attempts at breastfeeding help ensure success because they kick your body into milk-producing gear. So put your baby to your breast as soon as possible after he's born; newborns have an alert period of about 11/2 hours post-birth, during which time they're particularly receptive. Don't worry if he doesn't actually latch on and nurse—you're both benefiting from this early opportunity to bond, says Christina J. Valentine, M.D., R.D., medical director of the lactation program and medical adviser for neonatal nutrition at Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio. Before long, he'll be strong and savvy enough to actually breastfeed.
2. Just say no (to the nursery, that is). "Rooming in" not only promotes bonding, it also allows you to breastfeed as often as you and your baby want, which is key to building a good milk supply. It also has the longer-term effect of giving you the chance to start recognizing your newborn's feeding patterns and cues—important information to gather now, rather than when you're at home, with no nurse in sight.
"A baby's feeding cues are very subtle in the beginning, and if parents aren't aware, they may miss them altogether until the baby is crying and frantic," says Sue Tiller, R.N., a certified lactation consultant in Centreville, Va., and the author of Breastfeeding 101: A Step-by-Step Guide to Successfully Nursing Your Baby (TLC Publishing). "Miss the cues, and you go into a downward spiral." Signs to watch for: bringing the hands to the mouth, chewing on the fists, turning the head from side to side and smacking the lips.
3. Ditch the clothes. For the first several days or even longer, keep your baby on your body as much as possible, with both of you wearing as little clothing as possible. "Like any other mammal, a baby uses his mother's scent to identify his food source," Tiller says. "If you wrap a baby up in lots of blankets and keep him away from his mother, he's going to sleep a lot more and miss opportunities to nurse."
"It's so important that babies get immediate postpartum skin-to-skin contact with mom," Valentine agrees. "The baby stays warmer, his heart rate and respiratory rate stay more stable, and the bonding helps ensure success with lactation." The skin-to-skin contact with your baby also increases milk volume, she says.
4. Be prepared: Your baby will nurse. And nurse. And nurse. "I hear over and over from new moms how unprepared they were for how often their babies nursed and how long each session took," says Wendy Haldeman, M.N., R.N., I.B.C.L.C., co-owner of The Pump Station in Santa Monica and Hollywood, Calif. "Yes, nursing takes time, but this is when you're building the milk supply that will carry you through for as long as you're going to nurse your baby.
"There's also a window of opportunity in the first seven to 10 days when your body is primed to start making milk," Haldeman adds. "Babies know this, which is why they feed so often in the beginning." And we do mean often: Most newborns nurse at least every two hours around the clock, with each session taking about 30 minutes.