It’s one of nature’s greatest gifts—a complete food that provides all the nutrients your newborn needs. Better yet, it’s free, easily available and the temperature is always right.
So unique is breast milk that its composition actually changes during the course of a feeding to meet baby’s needs: The milk that comes in first (the foremilk) is packed with the protein baby needs for growth. Toward the end of the feeding comes the hindmilk, which supplies fat for energy.
What’s more, breast milk is easily digested and protects baby against gastrointestinal infections.
Besides providing nutrition, mother’s milk has another important benefit: From the very first feeding, it supplies baby with antibodies that help fight common childhood illnesses.
But baby isn’t the only one who benefits from breastfeeding. It helps Mom, too. Besides fostering a unique bond between mother and child, nursing stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone that causes your uterus to contract and return to its prepregnancy size. Breastfeeding mothers also can expect to lose about one to four pounds a month as long as they continue nursing.
Although it seems as if breastfeeding should come naturally, in fact it’s a learned process. For example, baby may need help figuring out how to latch onto your nipple and areola properly. (Latching on improperly—not taking in enough of the areola, for example—is a major cause of tender nipples, a problem that shouldn’t persist after the first week or so of nursing.)
Sometimes, finding a comfortable nursing position takes practice. For the first few weeks, you may feel some discomfort each time baby stretches your nipple into his or her little mouth. And nursing round-the-clock can be a challenge.
If you feel discouraged or need support, a lactation consultant or your healthcare provider can help.
When it comes to a feeding schedule, many experts believe it’s best to take your cue from baby. Listen for cries and watch for the sucking reflex—signs that your little one is hungry. Expect the hunger cues to occur every two to three hours, particularly during the first few weeks. Baby should nurse from each breast for about 10 to 20 minutes. (Alternate starting sides at each feeding.)
Feedings should be a calm, comforting time. Tension can interfere with the “let-down” reflex that triggers the flow of milk. Let baby set the pace, and expect natural pauses. Relax and enjoy baby’s closeness.
If you’re concerned that your little one isn’t eating enough, watch for signs that he or she is being nourished. Your breasts, for example, should be softer after a feeding. And during the feeding itself, you’ll be able to see baby swallowing. As his or her tummy grows full, baby will turn away from the breast.
Of course, frequent wet diapers and periodic weigh-ins provide further confirmation that baby is eating.