Breast feeding your baby
Getting ready to breast feed
Making the decision to breast feed your child is one of the best decisions you will make as a mother. Almost all women are physically able to breast feed their child. The human body adapts itself throughout pregnancy to ensure that most women will be able to produce enough milk to feed their baby. Few women or their partners, however, pause during their preparation for childbirth to consider that preparation for breast feeding begins well before your breasts begin to swell in the early stages of pregnancy.
Your own childhood experiences, how you feel about your body and the quality of your relationships with your family, friends and partner will all impact on how you feel about and prepare for breast feeding. You may feel overwhelmed at the emotions you feel when you are pregnant or are beginning to feed your baby for the first time. Some women feel that they have become ‘complete’, others feel that they have been ‘taken over’ by their child and that their life is no longer their own.
All these emotions are valid and normal. Taking the time to acknowledge these feelings and working out ways of dealing with them will help you and your baby have a successful breast feeding partnership. Remember, physically making milk is only one part of breast feeding. Balancing your changing body shape, your work, your expectations of yourself, your family and your partner and your own past experiences all contribute to successful breast feeding. One of the best things you can do to have a satisfying breast feeding experience is to make sure that you have one or 2 people who you can really count on to support you in your decision to breast feed your child.
The ideal food
Breast milk has long been known as the ideal food for babies and infants. Major health organisations recommend that women breast feed their babies exclusively until they are 6 months old, and continue breast feeding, along with solids, until they are 12 months old or more. Breast milk has many benefits.
- It is cheap, safe, environmentally friendly and ready for use at a moment’s notice.
- It’s the perfect food and easily digested (it is made especially for your baby). Breast fed babies are less likely to get fat. They are also very unlikely to get constipated.
- It changes as your baby’s needs change — a breast fed baby will take just as much milk as they need.
- It helps protect your baby against infection — the first fluid before milk comes in (colostrum) is particularly high in the mother’s protective antibodies.
- It may reduce the risk of allergies.
- It may help protect against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), diabetes and asthma.
Breast feeding may also protect mothers against ovarian and breast cancers, and possibly osteoporosis.
Starting to breast feed
You and your baby may only take a couple of days to become good breast feeding ‘partners’ or you may take weeks — like all new skills it comes easier to some than others. Most of us have seen women breast feeding babies from time to time. But most of the women we see casually feeding their babies at bus stops or cafes have been feeding for quite a while — and, like most things, practice makes perfect.
The first feed should be soon after the birth. Your milk supply will still be developing and when you put your baby to the breast he or she will be receiving colostrum, a yellow fluid that contains all the nutrition the baby needs for the first few days of life.
Colostrum is also full of antibodies that help to protect your baby from bacteria, and make his or her immune system strong. No other food or fluid is required in these first few days. If you have never seen a new-born baby breast feeding you may be surprised at how long it may take to complete a feed. Some babies will take up to 45 minutes to feed, sometimes dozing off to sleep in the middle. As the newborn baby does not yet have full control of his or her head you will need to gently position the baby’s mouth near the nipple.
Your midwife will help you and your baby get breast feeding started and show you how best to position the baby to feed. Every woman and baby will develop their own breast feeding style. Your midwife will help you develop a way of feeding that will suit you both.
Most midwives will spend some time helping you attach or ‘latch’ the baby to the breast correctly. This is because most problems that occur with breast feeding are caused by the baby not positioning their mouth correctly on the breast.
Before each feed, take the time to position yourself comfortably, so that you are relaxed. You may need to use some pillows to support yourself or the baby for the first few weeks or months of your baby’s life. Your baby’s arms should be unwrapped (so they can explore your face and breast) and their body well supported. Have your baby’s mouth at the same level as your nipple. Touch or brush your nipple gently on the baby's lower lip to encourage the baby's mouth to open. The mouth should go over the nipple and the areola (the brown area around the nipple). Make sure the nipple is centred so it does not become sore.
After the feed, to release the nipple, break the suction by gently placing your finger in the corner of the baby’s mouth. Do not pull the baby off without doing this as you will hurt your nipple.
The ‘let down’ reflex
The ‘let down’ is the reflex action that allows the milk to be pushed along the milk ducts towards the nipple. Some women notice a tingling, pins and needles feeling or fullness. Leaking from the breast can occur. The let down is important so that the baby gets not only the early milk but also the milk higher up. The milk higher in the breast is full of good healthy calories and fat that the baby needs. If you are anxious, have sore nipples or are not relaxed your let down may be slow. When you feel more comfortable about breast feeding and your milk is well established you will be able to breast feed anywhere.
Supply and demand feeding
The best way to build up and maintain your milk supply is to feed your baby as often as he or she needs it. This is known as demand feeding. The more the breasts are emptied the more milk is made. If the breasts remain full, milk is produced more slowly. Your baby will control its own milk intake. Therefore, feed for as long as your baby wants. Your baby should have at least 6 feeds every 24 hours.
A few babies swallow air and many don’t. To bring up wind, hold your baby over your shoulder, or seated on your lap with your hand gently resting on their abdomen and the other hand supporting the back.
Babies are all different
Every baby is different. Some will sleep well all night, others will be wakeful. This does not necessarily mean your baby is not contented or that you are not a good mother. If your baby is gaining weight, has plenty of wet nappies, and is mostly contented, he or she is probably getting enough milk. It is not unusual for breast fed babies to go for a number of days without a bowel motion, sometimes as long as 10 days. Bowel motions are usually pale in colour. If the bowel motions are hard and formed the baby may need more breast milk.
Looking after yourself
Tiredness is an occupational hazard of parenthood. Being tired or over-stressed can reduce your milk supply. If you can, sleep or rest in the afternoon. You will probably be amazed at how much milk you make when you are asleep. Spend time with other women and their babies, but resist the temptation to compare your baby with other babies. Each baby is special and different.
Encourage your partner to talk to you and/or his friends about any problems that arise. The sudden changes the birth of a baby brings can be very confusing and new demands can have an effect on your personal life together. Any problems should be discussed and dealt with as soon as possible.
Eat food from each of the following groups every day:
- fruit and vegetables;
- bread and cereals (some wholegrain);
- milk products (milk, cheese and yoghurt); and
- lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, peas, beans and lentils.
Breast feeding women need protein and calcium. Have healthy snacks between meals such as fruit, nuts or cheese. Make sure you drink lots of fluid — breast feeding can make you very thirsty. It can be helpful to have a glass of water within reach during a breast feed. Alcohol and cigarette smoking should be avoided while breast feeding. Medicine should only be taken if your doctor advises. Some oral contraceptives can affect your milk supply. Be guided by your doctor.
Breast feeding may be the most natural thing in the world, but for many women it doesn’t come easily. Breast feeding difficulties can cause considerable physical and emotional distress. Fortunately, a lot of help is available. Organisations such as the Australian Breastfeeding Association can offer advice, and lactation consultants — usually midwives who have undergone special training in helping people to breast feed — are readily contactable through maternity hospitals and early childhood health centres. There is also a National Breastfeeding Helpline — 1800 mum 2 mum (1800 686 268), operated by the Australian Breastfeeding Association. The great majority of breast feeding problems can be resolved with expert help.
Last Reviewed: 25/08/2018
1. Australian Breastfeeding Association. General breastfeeding information. https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bf-info/general-breastfeeding-information (accessed Aug 2018).
Breast milk expressing
There are a number of reasons why a breast feeding mother might wish to express milk rather than feeding the baby directly from the breast.
Engorgement and mastitis
If you experience difficulties with breastfeeding, such as engorgement or mastitis, seek the advice of a midwife, lactation consultant, the Australian Breastfeeding Association or your doctor.