Experts agree: Breast milk is one of the greatest gifts you can give your baby. It's brimming with nutrients and antibodies that boost your newborn's immunity, aid digestion and promote brain development. An added bonus: Breastfeeding burns calories like crazy, helping you lose those pregnancy pounds faster. And it reduces your lifetime risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer and postmenopausal osteoporosis.
But good things don't always come easily. Marathon feeding sessions, engorged breasts and sore nipples are some of the challenges you might face as a nursing mom, especially in the beginning. Fortunately, the vast majority of problems can be overcome with information and practice, says Sue Tiller, R.N., an international board-certified lactation consultant in Centreville, Va., and author of Breastfeeding 101: A Step-by-Step Guide to Successfully Nursing Your Baby (TLC Publishing). The first week is particularly crucial, Tiller adds—that's when you and your baby learn the ropes and your milk supply is established.
We're here to help. From how to position your little one at the breast to the best time for introducing a bottle, we'll tell you what you need to know to get off to the right start and avoid pitfalls during those pivotal early days.
Hop To It
Immediately after giving birth, you may be dying to devour a pizza or call loved ones with your news. But that's when newborns tend to be the most alert and responsive, making it the ideal time to introduce your baby to the breast, Tiller says. After a vaginal delivery, as long as there are no complications, try to nurse right away. If you've had a Cesarean section, you may have to wait until surgery is complete—but try to breastfeed within the first hour.
Don't stress if your baby doesn't nurse at first; unless she's a preemie, she shouldn't need much nourishment for the first few days. (Babies born at term have stores of calories and fluid that make it unnecessary for them to eat much early on.)
Make Sure You're Comfy
Once your baby is latched onto your breast and nursing contentedly, you won't want to interrupt her because your back hurts or your arm is tired. So take a minute to settle into a comfortable, relaxed position before starting to breastfeed, advises Terriann Shell, an international board-certified lactation consultant in Big Lake, Alaska.
When you're just starting out, sit up straight in an armchair or your hospital bed. (Once you and your baby get the hang of nursing, you can try other positions, such as lying on your side.) Lay a firm pillow across your lap so your baby is level with your breast, and prop up your elbows on the chair arms or pillows. (You also can use pillows that are made specifically for breastfeeding; see "Breast Buddies," below, for our expert's picks.) Also put a pillow behind your back for support, if needed. If you're sitting in a chair, place your feet on a small stool to bring your baby closer and help prevent back and arm strain.
Learn The Correct Latch
A good latch is essential for your milk to flow properly and to keep your little piranha from making fish food of your nipples. Before you put her to the breast, make sure your baby is on her side so you and she are belly to belly, Shell advises. When she does latch on, her mouth should be opened wide, like a yawn, and take in a good portion of your areola. (For detailed instructions and photos, check out this step-by-step guide.)