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Mom breastfeeding her child.

Seven tips for successful breastfeeding

Breastfeeding has lifelong health benefits for babies. While many new moms are eager to begin breastfeeding, some may discover that breastfeeding isn’t always as easy as it looks.

“Breastfeeding is a learned skill,” says Piedmont lactation consultant Jennifer Smith, RN, BSN, IBCLC. “It is not an instinct for the mother. There is actually a lot to learn. Infants will suck on anything that is far enough back in the mouth to trigger a suck, but how to latch well to the breast is a learned skill and one to be taught to the baby by the mother.” A good latch helps prevent sore nipples and ensures the baby is milking the breast efficiently.

Breastfeeding provides enormous benefits for both you and your baby. Breastfed babies grow up to have stronger immune systems, take better to vaccinations, and have higher average IQs. They also have lower percentages of respiratory illness, gastrointestinal illnesses and even certain types of cancers. Breastfed babies have lower incidences of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

For the mother, breastfeeding has been shown to reduce incidences of breast and ovarian cancers and help prevent osteoporosis. It can also help mothers return to their pre-pregnancy weight faster. Breastfeeding encourages bonding between the baby and mom, which aids the baby in emotional growth as he or she gets older.

Here are Smith’s tips to make breastfeeding more successful.

1. Start preparing before you give birth.

Smith’s major recommendation is to take breastfeeding classes before your baby is born. Because breastfeeding is a learned skill, it’s important to learn best practices before the baby arrives.

“I can’t stress the importance of taking classes enough,” Smith says. Each hospital in the Piedmont system offers courses on breastfeeding. Knowing what to expect and knowing when to ask for help are equally important.

2. Breastfeed early and often.

Whenever feasible, it’s important to breastfeed as soon after birth as possible. This is often known as “the golden hour,” Smith says. During the first 1-3 hours after birth, your baby will be awake, alert and ready to feed. After that, they’ll go into a recovery sleepy period that can last up to 12-18 hours.

Feeding early sets both you and your baby up for a good start, Smith says. The baby will get early nourishment, which helps stabilize their blood sugar. It helps mothers to learn some feeding cues, and the earlier you start, the better the milk supply will be down the road. If a baby cannot breastfeed within the first few hours, it is important to hand-express colostrum and use a double electric hospital-grade pump.

Smith encourages mothers to requests breast pumps be set up as early as one hour after birth if a baby cannot breastfeed for any reason. Breastfed infants eat about 8-10 times every 24 hours.

3. Be patient with yourself and your baby.

Breastfeeding is a new skill and takes a lot of practice. Some women (and babies) pick it up more easily than others, but it is something new that both you and your baby are learning to do. So be patient with yourself—and your baby.

Infants are designed to be a little sleepy in the first 24 hours of life. If newborn is stable, their blood sugars are OK and there’s no medical reason to be worried about them eating enough, they do not have to eat a lot in the first 24 hours. Piedmont encourages skin-to-skin contact with your baby and hand-expressing colostrum, your early milk, for your baby to lick off a finger. Colostrum is available in very small amounts but is there for your baby at birth. It is easy to digest and easy to swallow, and it is loaded with protection for your baby.

“It takes two to breastfeed successfully,” Smith says. “Some babies will take longer than others to learn how to breastfeed well. They have weeks to learn if necessary. What is important is feeding the baby and protecting the milk supply while they learn, and that involves pumping frequently—about every 3 hours.”

4. Make sure your baby latches on properly.

A baby should be positioned high and close to the breast, with the ear, shoulder and hip in a straight line and the baby’s stomach facing the mother. Provide lots of support for the baby’s neck and shoulders, Smith says, and ensure you’re supporting your breast appropriately as well. Nurses at Piedmont are trained to help with breastfeeding and positioning an infant at the breast.

Use your nipple to tickle the infant from the nose down to the chin and wait for the baby to open the mouth wide, as if yawning. Then move the baby quickly to the breast. The baby should have as much breast tissue in his or her mouth as possible. Babies breastfeed, not nipple-feed.

Getting the right latch takes practice, Smith says, but it can prevent issues like sore nipples and engorgement.

5. Wait to use bottles and pacifiers.

It takes time for babies to learn how to breastfeed, and receiving a bottle or pacifier can interfere with that process, Smith says. If breastfeeding is going well, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting 3-4 weeks, until breastfeeding is well established, to introduce bottles. 

Though it may be tempting to pump your breasts, it is better to breastfeed directly at least for the first few weeks. But if a baby is not breastfeeding well, it is of course important to feed your baby. A lactation consultant can help if a baby becomes used to a bottle and needs help transitioning back to the breast.

Not every baby will have trouble latching to the breast after having received a bottle, though some do. But babies have weeks to learn to breastfeed, so if they need to be supplemented with a bottle while they are learning, that is OK.

There are multiple benefits that happen at the breast and not when babies get breast milk from a bottle. When breastfeeding, babies can regulate their own milk intake, and studies have shown that this reduces risk of obesity later in life.

Breast milk also contains both passive and active antibodies, Smith explains. Passive antibodies are the ones a mother has built up over her lifetime.  Active antibodies are the ones the breast is making on the spot, giving the baby additional benefits. The breast can make antibodies to something the mother has no protection from in her blood stream.

This mom-baby body communication doesn’t happen with pumped milk. So, pumped milk is not the same as milk an infant gets from directly breastfeeding. A pump does not recognize germs, while the cells in the breast can and do.

6. Find a good support system.

Early motherhood can be isolating and sometimes a little overwhelming, especially as you adjust to new routines like breastfeeding. Rely on friends and family for help, especially those who have successfully breastfed, or find a support group to meet other moms going through similar experiences. As the saying goes, it takes a village.

“Children are not meant to be raised in a vacuum,” Smith says.

7. Know what’s normal.

In your first week postpartum, the first 30-40 seconds of a latch may feel tender. That’s because your hormones are still fluctuating and nipples can react, but the sensitivity should fade quickly into the feed. Know feeding cues such as licking the lips, sucking fingers, and opening the mouth as though searching for something to latch onto. Crying is a late cue.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends feeding your infant per cues and not watching the clock. Some babies may be sleepier than others, and you may have to wake them for some feeds.

“The mom should feel a nice tug with no pain,” Smith says. “What is not normal is pain all the way through the feed, or damage such as blisters, cracks, bruises.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for six months and continue to breastfeed for at least one year. Solid foods are recommended to begin around six months. Mothers and babies may breastfeed longer than one year if both are happy doing so. That might seem overwhelming at first, but “it gets easier as the baby gets older,” Smith says.

Breastfeeding for the first six weeks of the baby’s life will be a little time-intensive. But that’s the learning curve period, Smith says, and you will adjust during those weeks.  Breastfeeding becomes easier and faster as the infant grows and matures.

“Don’t panic,” she says. “Give it time.”

Learn more about Piedmont's lactation support services.

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