A Baby's Breast Friend

Is nursing right for you? Here'’s what you need to know.

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By the time Kathi Sweet finished her childbirth preparation class, she knew she would breastfeed her baby. Among other factors leading to this decision was the fact that her instructor was a breastfeeding advocate. "She stressed the health benefits for the baby, and the ease and convenience for me," says Sweet, now a mother of two boys in Los Angeles. "Her attitude was that everyone can do it, that it's natural ... women are made to nurse their children."

But the first two weeks of breastfeeding didn't go as smoothly as Sweet had hoped. "It was messy, painful and erratic; it seemed like nothing about it made sense," she says. Thankfully, her husband, obstetrician and pediatrician were all supportive of her decision to breastfeed. Without encouragement from family and friends, Sweet says she might have abandoned nursing completely.

Making the Decision Research shows that breast milk is easily digested and contains antibodies that help protect against illness. In addition, breastfed babies are less likely than formula-fed babies to suffer from food allergies and to be obese later in life. These are just a few reasons why the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that women breastfeed their newborns exclusively for six months, then nurse and supplement with appropriate solid foods until their babies are at least 1 year old. Research also suggests that breastfeeding mothers may be at a lower risk for developing breast and ovarian cancers, as well as osteoporosis, and that lactating women tend to get back to their prepregnancy weight sooner than nonlactating women.

Still, you may be worried that your breasts are too small to make a sufficient amount of milk or that they're too big and could suffocate your baby. Or you may be concerned that breastfeeding will make your baby too dependent on you, especially if you have to return to work.

Maybe your partner isn't supportive of breastfeeding because he is jealous or wants to participate in feedings. It might be a modesty issue, or perhaps breastfeeding "just isn't your style." Or, like many women, you may be concerned that breastfeeding will stimulate sexual feelings.

You can help put these fears to rest by arming yourself with as much information as possible well before your baby is born. For starters, ask your obstetrician or health care provider for help. "During pregnancy, the obstetrician's input makes a major difference [in the woman's decision to breastfeed]," says Lawrence Gartner, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and obstetrics-gynecology at the University of Chicago and chairman of the work group focused on breastfeeding for the AAP. "OBs shouldn't bring up the benefits of breastfeeding [just] once; they should bring them up at every prenatal visit. We encourage OBs not to ask how a woman has decided to feed her baby — that leaves the door open for her to say 'formula' — but instead ask her what she'd like to know about breastfeeding."

Find Support While most obstetricians can detail the benefits of breastfeeding, you likely will need to get additional information and support.

"Gather information from books and magazines, attend La Leche League meetings (they're free; look in your telephone directory for the local branch), and take classes at your hospital or birthing center," says Mary Lofton, a spokesperson for La Leche League International, the breastfeeding education and support group based in Schaumburg, Ill.

Ask your doctor or nurse-midwife to arrange to have a lactation consultant assist you in the hospital when your baby is born, because you'll want to begin breastfeeding as soon as possible following delivery (the AAP recommends within an hour of delivery). Or call the International Lactation Consultant Association (see Resources below). The lactation consultant will show you several nursing positions, help you perfect your baby's latch, and explain how to establish a good milk supply and prevent sore nipples and painful engorged breasts. If nothing else, she'll calm you during what can be a frustrating experience.

Once you bring the baby home from the hospital, you should continue to meet with your lactation consultant, and you may want to attend lactation support groups in your neighborhood. La Leche League can put you in touch with a local volunteer, who may spend as much time with you on the phone as you need.

In addition to getting you started breastfeeding, a lactation consultant can show you how to use a breast pump. While pumping isn't the most enjoyable experience ("Now I really feel like a cow" is a common refrain), it does allow you the freedom to go back to work when the time comes. It also gives dad and other family members the opportunity to share in feeding time. "Learning to use a breast pump requires patience and practice," Lofton says. "It can be as awkward as the first time you took your baby to your breast."

The day will come when both pumping and breastfeeding become second nature. That's what Kathi Sweet found out. "It was six to eight stressful weeks before I settled into breastfeeding with my first son, but I'm glad I hung in there," she says.