It is a good idea to learn a bit about breastfeeding while you are still pregnant, before your baby is born.
Of course you can’t learn it ALL – there’s a lot of on-the-job training once the new baby arrives – but it will help if you know what you can expect.
It is also helpful to know about how your body produces breastmilk, what ingredients are in breastmilk and what role breastfeeding plays in helping you recover after the birth of your baby.
Learning about breastfeeding now, while life is relatively calm, will also help you to prepare for life with your new baby. Much of the focus in the early weeks will be on feeding (and sleeping!) so it pays to know a bit about the practical side of breastfeeding – like how often a baby feeds and for how long.
So here are some things you might want to know before you start breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding – things to know before you start
Breastmilk is a complete food for a new baby.
Breastmilk contains all the nutrients a new baby needs. It is the ideal combination of vitamins, proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Breastfed babies do not need to drink water.
Breastmilk also contains antibodies that help protect babies against illness and disease. If a mother comes into contact with an illness her body begins to build antibodies which are then passed to the baby via her breastmilk. There are many other components of breastmilk that help build a baby’s immune system including white blood cells, probiotics and prebiotics.
Breastmilk is a complete food for a baby until they begin solid food (around 6 months) and will continue to be the main source of nutrition until their digestive system is mature enough to eat all the same foods as the rest of the family (around 12 months).
Your body’s already gearing up for breastfeeding.
Did you notice changes to your breasts almost immediately after you fell pregnant? Breast tenderness and changes in size and colour of the areola are a few of the early signs of pregnancy. Straight away your body starts to build the milk duct system and by the second trimester it is good to go – in case your baby is born prematurely.
After your baby is born you will deliver the placenta, which triggers the process of milk production.
Baby’s first feed will be, in most cases, straight after birth
Usually if a birth is complication-free, the baby will be placed on the mother’s chest immediately following delivery. There are many benefits of skin-to-skin contact after birth, including the positive impact on breastfeeding. A baby’s instinct will be to seek out the breast for its first feed and they can even nuzzle towards the breast during that first hour after birth.
Breastfeeding after delivery will help stimulate your milk production and help your uterus to contract back into shape. The hormones released during breastfeeding will also help you to bond with your new baby and to relax after what may have been a long or stressful labour and birth.
For the first few days you’ll produce colostrum, not breastmilk
Some new mums are suprised to learn that their milk doesn’t ‘come in’ straight away. It actually takes 2-3 days and until then your body produces colostrum.
Colostrum is thick and yellowish, compared to breast milk. It is the perfect first food for a new baby as they have very small bellies and immature digestive systems. They don’t ingest a large volume of colostrum during these first feeds so it is nutrient-dense – jam-packed with all the good stuff a new baby needs. It is also slow-flowing – giving your baby and yourself time to get used to breastfeeding and attachment before your milk flows in.
Colostrum also has a laxative effect – which is important to help babies pass those first meconium poos (a glorious tar-like surprise for many new mums!).
Breastfeeding can be painful at first but if pain persists ask for help!
Breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt. But … there may be some pain or discomfort as your nipples adjust to all the suckling. As your body grows used to breastfeeding this should disappear. If breastfeeding continues to be painful it could be a sign that something isn’t right. It is important to ask for advice on correct technique when you start breastfeeding as correct attachment can help to minimise breastfeeding problems such as sore or cracked nipples as well as blocked ducts and mastitis.
It is also important to chat to a health care provider if pain continues as there may be other issues (eg. your baby may have a tongue tie).
New babies feed often. Like a lot, a whole lot.
Even after reading this you’ll probably still be surprised at how much of your time will be spent feeding your newborn. Babies have small bellies and breastmilk is quickly digested. A new baby will have about 8- 12 feeds over a 24-hour period – day and night. At first each feed might last for up to an hour, which, when you do the maths, doesn’t leave a lot of time in between feeds. Find something good to watch on TV and make sure you always have water, a snack and the remote on hand!
As your baby gets older they’ll need less frequent feeds and will be much faster at feeding. Make sure you take advantage of the sleep-inducing hormone that is released during breastfeeding – it is nature’s way of making sure you and the baby both get a well-deserved rest!
Breastfeeding is about supply and demand
Breastmilk is a living fluid, constantly changing to meet the needs of your growing baby. Your body knows how much milk to produce according to how much milk is being drunk by your baby. This means that by feeding your baby when they are hungry (rather than according to a strict feeding schedule) your body will respond by adjusting the amount of milk produced.
Sometimes babies have periods where they want to feed more often. It is best to go with the flow – so to speak – as this is a sign they are needing more milk and your body will respond by increasing supply.
Always ask for help.
Breastfeeding isn’t always smooth sailing so it is important to ask for help when you need it. Talk to a midwife or lactation consultant when you need advice and chat to trusted friends and family when you need support. The Australian Breastfeeding Association has a 24-hour support line, phone 1800 686 268. And you can also ask questions and chat in our breastfeeding support forum section. You can also find a private lactation consultant in your area.
It is also important that you try not to get too stressed about breastfeeding, which is much easier said than done! Remember that it is just one aspect of parenting (even though it is all-consuming at first) and that it is also very important that you take care of yourself when you’re a new parent.