There are many words to describe those first few days after the birth of a baby.
Exhilarating, emotional, joyous, exhausting, exciting, overwhelming. There are ups and there are downs. There are moments of incredible peace and joy. There are moments of great stress and anxiety.
One of the main focuses of these first few days — and the cause of many of the emotions that go with it — is feeding your newborn.
You may have read up on things you should know about breastfeeding while you were pregnant, but there’s still a whole lot to learn now that your baby is in your arms. It is also suddenly very real! You are now in charge of a tiny human being who relies on you completely. Whoa. Breathe …
So what is breastfeeding going to be like in these next few days? What questions should you ask health care providers? What can you do straight away to help establish a good supply of breastmilk and successful breastfeeding in the future? And what are the common concerns among new mothers when they start breastfeeding?
5 things to know about breastfeeding in the first few days
The first feeds and colostrum
In most circumstances you will have fed your baby straight after birth. A newborn usually will seek out their mother’s breast if placed skin-to-skin straight after birth. Breastfeeding helps your uterus contract back into shape and the delivery of the placenta is what triggers your milk to come.
The milk doesn’t usually come until day 2-3 and until that time your baby gets all the nutrients they need from colostrum, which is sticky, yellow-ish, slow-flowing and nutrient-dense. Your baby only needs a small amount of colostrum to fill their tiny belly and it gives you and the baby some time to practice attachment and positioning before all that milk comes flowing in!
If you weren’t able to breastfeed your baby straight after birth it isn’t too late for skin-to-skin contact –there’s many advantages to this (for mum, baby and dad too!) and it can help to establish breastfeeding.
How to know when baby is hungry
There are a few signs to watch for that will help you to know when your baby is hungry. It is best to watch for these signs before a baby becomes too hungry — as then they will be upset and unsettled, which means you’ll have to settle your crying baby before you feed them.
Breastfeeding is easiest when a baby is hungry but still calm.
Some of the early telltale signs are:
- Baby’s mouth opens
- Baby turns their head to the side, as if looking for your breast
- Baby starts to move more
- Baby might make sucking noises or suck on their fingers or fist
How often should you feed your newborn baby?
Newborns have small bellies and breastmilk is quickly and easily digested. This means they’ll need frequent feeds. Start to watch for the early signs that your baby is hungry and feed your baby when they are hungry.
It is common for a new baby to have between 8-12 feeds in 24 hours and each may last up to an hour.
Breastfeeding is about supply and demand so offering frequent feeds when your baby is hungry will send the right signals to your body so that it can produce the right amount of breastmilk for your baby. When you’re asked how long it has been since your baby’s last feed you count from when the feed started, not when it finished.
All this feeding can be overwhelming at first. Sometimes it feels as though you’ve only just finished a feed and baby is already looking for another. Don’t fret. It is normal and beneficial in establishing a good supply — and it won’t last forever.
Make sure you stay hydrated and rest between feeds.
Attaching your baby to the breast – the correct latch technique
It is difficult to explain correct attachment in words so it is important that you talk to midwives and lactation consultants when you can — while you’re in hospital or having home visits.
An incorrect latch will mostly likely result in painful cracked or grazed nipples and your baby may not be able to drain the breast properly, which could lead to blocked milk ducts or mastitis.
Signs of a well-attached breastfeeding baby
- the baby is help close to the mother’s body and facing the mother’s body
- the baby’s mouth is open wide when attaching
- the baby draws in nipple and areola
- baby’s lips are curled outwards
- baby’s chin is touching the breast and perhaps the tip of the nose (baby’s nose should not be squashed up against the breast).
If your baby isn’t latching on properly make sure you take baby off the breast and try again. A trick to do this is to use your finger to push onto the nipple, near the baby’s mouth, to break the suction seal before removing the baby. If you feed when baby is poorly attached it will become painful. Sometimes there will be pain even when baby is attaching properly — this is just your nipples becoming used to the extra friction — but this should disappear if baby continues to attach well.
Please remember to ask for advice from midwives and lactation consultants at each feed — the more tips the better, until you find something that works for you. Also ask them to show you a variety of ways to hold your baby when breastfeeding as a change in position can help cracked nipples to heal.
When your milk comes in — and engorgement
For many new mums it is quite obvious when their milk does come in! All of a sudden your breasts are full, so full you may not be able to roll over in bed! It can take up to six weeks before your body has worked out how much milk is the right amount for you to produce. Until then — and especially in the very early days — your breasts will often feel engorged.
Here are some tips for when your milk comes in and dealing with engorgement:
- Keep feeding your baby when hungry, rather than to a strict feeding schedule
- As you feed your baby walk your fingers across the top of the breast you’re feeding from. This mini-massage will help your breast to drain, will help you get to know what your breast should feel like and will help you to spot small lumps (potential blocked ducts) and massage them away
- Sometimes a breast will be so engorged that your nipple is too tight for baby to attach properly. Try to hand express a small amount of milk from the breast so the nipple become soft again.
- You may need to express a small amount of breastmilk to relieve some of the pressure of engorgement. Remember that your body can’t tell if the milk goes into a breastpump or into your baby’s belly so it will assume that you need that milk and will respond by producing more milk so only express enough to make yourself comfortable.
- Make sure your baby is draining your breast properly. Have them drain one before offering the second and make sure they are attached properly as this will also help the breast to drain. If your baby doesn’t drink from the second for long, make sure you start on that side at the next feed. There are a few tricks to remember which side you’re up to (try a hairband or bracelet around that wrist! There’s even apps to help you remember — of course!)
- You may need to wake your baby for a feed — especially in those first days if you’ve got a sleepy newborn (or one with a condition such as jaundice or low blood sugar). This will help to relieve engorgement. You might need gently stroke, or slightly tickle, a small baby to stop them nodding off mid-feed or take off a few layers of clothing so they’re not super warm and cozy (but not too many that they are cold either, of course).
Some common early breastfeeding concerns
It is hard not to feel anxious about breastfeeding at some point. It is all new to you and it can all be quite overwhelming at times. Make sure you ask as many questions as you can while you’re receiving help — in hospital or during home visits.
Some common early breastfeeding concerns are:
If you’ve had early latch issues (combined with all that extra friction on your nipples) you’re bound to be in some pain when feeding. You can take paracetamol while breastfeeding (take it 40 minutes before for it to have any affect) and you can also find creams, nipple shields or soothing breastpads in most chemists.
Ask your midwife to show you some different feeding positions, as the change in position will stop the constant friction in the one spot and will help you to heal.
Don’t wash nipples with soap as this irritates them further. Rub breastmilk on them after feeds and allow them to air dry if you can.
If feeding your baby is far too painful to continue you can keep your supply up by using a breastpump and feeding expressed breast milk to your baby until you heal.
Concerns about supply
Many mothers worry that they’re not making enough milk for their baby. Remember that in the early days you’re making colostrum and baby only needs a small amount. Some mother’s try to use a breastpump to see if there’s enough milk but pumps aren’t as efficient as a baby’s suck and will not give an accurate idea of how much milk is there.
Be assured that if your baby is having plenty of wet nappies they are getting enough.
Also, if you’re used to feeling engorged and your breasts don’t seem as swollen any more it is usually a sign that your body is getting better at producing the right amount of breastmilk.
The best way to build your supply is to feed when your baby is hungry (watch your baby not the clock). Breastfeeding works by supply and demand, so your body needs to know how much milk your baby drinks in order to produce the right amount.
Remember also that all babies will lose up to 10 per cent of their birth weight in the first few days and then will begin to put on weight.
However, if your baby isn’t putting on weight or having enough wet nappies, you should talk to your health care professional immediately.
Conflicting advice, lack of support and zero confidence
A lot of mums become confused and frustrated by the large amount of advice (sometimes conflicting advice) coming their way. The key is to learn as much as you can from trusted sources (midwives or lactation consultants or friends who have breastfed their own babies) then use that information as a base to filter all other advice and to find what works for you and your baby.
From well-meaning relatives to random people in supermarkets — advice will be as fast-flowing as your breastmilk on letdown! And it won’t just be about breastfeeding — you might need to work on your ‘polite smile’ because becoming a parent suddenly opens you up to a whole new world of advice and sometimes judgement.
Ask the right people for advice, do your own research so that you’re well informed about what is normal (the range of ‘normal’ when it comes to breastfeeding is surprising large), surround yourself with supportive friends and family, watch your baby and learn from them, and have confidence in your ability to be a parent.
It’s just not working out
Sometimes breastfeeding just doesn’t go as planned. Most women intend on breastfeeding but for many reasons things don’t always work out. If things aren’t going well, remember to ask advice and look for support. There are many issues that can be resolved, especially if they are addressed quickly, with good advice and loads of support.
Some mothers feel guilty or feel a sense of loss if they’re unable to continue to breastfeed their baby. These are normal emotions and you should be kind to yourself during this time. It is OK to feel this way but remember that you did your best and every drop of breast milk your baby received benefited them.
Feeding your baby is just one aspect of parenting — although it feels all-consuming when they are newborns. What is also very important is that you’re looking after yourself and that you’re a healthy happy mother.
If you have any questions or concerns about breastfeeding contact your health care professional.
– compiled using information from the Australian Breastfeeding Association