Babies and infants have specific nutrition requirements to support their healthy growth and development. Breast milk contains all the nutrients required by your baby for the first 6 months of their life. From around 6 months, your baby can have breast milk along with appropriate solid foods, and continue to do so until they are at least 1 year old, or older.
Breast milk has many benefits:
- It is cheap, safe, environmentally friendly and ready for use at a moment's notice.
- It is easily digested and very unlikely to cause your baby to become constipated.
- It changes as your baby's needs change – a breastfed baby will take just as much milk as they need and are less likely to get fat.
- It helps protect your baby against infection. The first milk (colostrum) is particularly high in the mother's protective antibodies.
- It reduces the risk of allergies.
Along with providing nutrition for your growing child, breastfeeding has many other benefits; it is easy, free and the skin to skin contact can strengthen the bond between mother and baby.
Making the decision to breastfeed
Making the decision to breastfeed your child is one of the best decisions you will make as a parent. Almost all women are physically able to breastfeed their child and produce enough milk.
How you feel about breastfeeding will be affected by a wide range of experiences from your own childhood, to parents, friends and workmates. How you feel about your body and the quality of your relationships with your family, friends and partner will also be important.
Physically making milk is only one part of breastfeeding. 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 breastfeeding.
One of the best things you can do is to make sure that you have one or two people who you can really count on to support you in your decision to breastfeed your child. Practical and moral support really helps.
While breastfeeding is natural, it is not uncommon for mother's to experience challenges with it. If you are having trouble breastfeeding don't struggle alone – talk to your midwife or a lactation consultant. You can also find tips and advice on our pages on common breastfeeding problems and what to do if you can't breastfeed.
Starting to breastfeed
Like all new skills, breastfeeding comes easier to some than others. You and your baby may only take a couple of days to become good breastfeeding 'partners' or you may take up to six weeks.
Most of us have seen women breastfeeding babies from time to time. It is important to remember that 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 which contains all the nutrition the baby needs for the first few days of life. Colostrum is also full of antibodies which 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 newborn baby breastfeeding 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.
Positioning baby for breastfeeding
Trying to write how to position a baby correctly on the breast is a bit like writing the instructions for teaching someone how to knit - it is much easier to be shown.
Your midwife will help you and your baby get breastfeeding started. Every women and baby will develop their own breastfeeding 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 breastfeeding are caused by the baby not positioning their mouth correctly on the breast.
Before each feed:
- Take time to position yourself comfortably, so that you are relaxed.
- Use some pillows to support yourself or baby (particularly during the first few weeks or months).
- Unwrap your baby's arms so they can explore your face and breast and ensure their body is well supported.
- Have your baby's mouth at the same level as your nipple. Baby’s mouth should go over the nipple and the areola (the brown area around the nipple).
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, which 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 breastfeeding and your milk is well established you will be able to breastfeed 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 their milk intake; therefore, feed for as long as your baby wants.
Your baby should have at least six feeds every 24 hours.
Bringing up wind
A few babies swallow air but 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.
How do I know if baby is getting enough milk?
If your baby is gaining weight, has plenty of wet nappies, and is mostly content, they are probably getting enough milk. Every baby is different. Some will sleep well all night, others will be wakeful. This does not necessarily mean your baby is not content or that they are not getting enough milk.
It is not unusual for breastfed babies to go for a number of days without a bowel motion, sometimes as long as 10 days. Bowel motions are usually yellow in colour.
What about bottle feeding expressed milk?
Avoid using bottles while establishing breastfeeding and think carefully before giving artificial teats or pacifiers (dummies) to your baby.
If you need your baby to be fed expressed milk at times, it may be helpful to introduce the bottle to your baby after six weeks of age.
Try not to introduce a bottle until you are sure that you and your child really have breastfeeding completely under control. Some babies will take both the bottle and the breast and others won't.
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 content or that you are not a good mother. If your baby is gaining weight, has plenty of wet nappies, and is mostly content, they are probably getting enough milk. It is not unusual for breastfed babies to go for a number of days without a bowel motion, sometimes as long as 10 days.
Bowel motions are usually yellow in colour. Think carefully before giving artificial teats or pacifiers (dummies) to your baby. Avoid using bottles while establishing breastfeeding. However, if you need your baby to be fed expressed milk at times, it may be helpful to introduce the bottle to your baby after six weeks of age. Try not to introduce a bottle until you are sure that you and your child really have breastfeeding completely under control. Some babies will take both the bottle and the breast and others won't.
How can I get a breastfeeding assessment?
If you are worried about how your baby is feeding, ask to have a breastfeeding assessment. Your midwife or lead maternity carer (LMC) can refer you to a lactation consultant for an assessment. A lactation consultant is a professionally trained breastfeeding specialist. The referral process will vary across the country and your midwife/LMC will know who to refer you to in your area.
You can also talk to a PlunketLine nurse on 0800 933 922. Calls are free and PlunketLine is available 24/7. They'll do an assessment and can book you an online appointment with one of Plunket's lactation consultants. These breastfeeding consultations are free and available for all breastfeeding women, even if Plunket isn’t your WellChild provider.
During the assessment, a lactation consultant will talk to you about your baby's feeding. They will watch your baby breastfeeding and adjust your breastfeeding technique if necessary. You and your baby can have a breastfeeding assessment as early as 2 days after they are born if your baby has severe feeding problems. Talk to your midwife if you are worried.
Looking after yourself while breastfeeding
Tiredness is common when your baby is young. However, being tired or overstressed can reduce your milk supply. If you can, sleep or rest in the afternoon. You may 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 which 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, yoghurt, ice cream)
- lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, peas, beans and lentils.
Additional tips for looking after yourself:
- Make sure you get enough protein and calcium.
- Have healthy snacks between meals, such as fruit or cheese.
- Avoid alcohol and cigarette smoking while breastfeeding.
- Medicine should only be taken if your doctor advises.
- Some oral contraceptives can affect your milk supply – check with your doctor.