The experience of breastfeeding is special for so many reasons: joyful bonding with your baby; the perfect nutrition only you can provide; cost savings, and most importantly the health benefits for both mother and baby. In fact, breast milk has disease-fighting antibodies that can help protect infants from several types of illnesses. And mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk of some health problems, including breast cancer and type 2 diabetes. Here are a few more reasons why breastfeeding is important:
• Breastfeeding protects babies. Known as liquid gold, colostrum is the thick yellow first breast milk that you make during pregnancy and just after birth. This milk is very rich in nutrients and antibodies to protect your baby. Although your baby only gets a small amount of colostrum at each feeding, it matches the amount his or her tiny stomach can hold.
Your breast milk changes as your baby grows. Colostrum changes into what is called mature milk. By the third to fifth day after birth, this mature breast milk has just the right amount of fat, sugar, water, and protein to help your baby continue to grow. It is a thinner type of milk than colostrum, but it provides all of the nutrients and antibodies your baby needs.
• Breast milk is easier to digest. For most babies, especially premature babies, breast milk is easier to digest than formula. The proteins in formula are made from cow’s milk, and it takes time for babies’ stomachs to adjust to digesting them.
• Breast milk fights disease. The cells, hormones, and antibodies in breast milk protect babies from illness. This protection is unique. Formula cannot match the chemical makeup of human breast milk.
In fact, among formula-fed babies, ear infections and diarrhea are more common.
Formula-fed babies also have higher risks of: necrotizing enterocolitis, a disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract in pre-term infant; lower respiratory infections; atopic dermatitis, a type of skin rash; asthma; obesity; Type 1 and type 2 diabetes; childhood leukemia. Breastfeeding has also been shown to lower the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
Before Giving Birth
To prepare for breastfeeding, the most important thing you can do is have confidence in yourself. Committing to breastfeeding starts with the belief that you can do it! Other steps you can take to prepare for breastfeeding:
- Get good prenatal care, which can help you avoid early delivery. Babies born too early often need special care, which can make breastfeeding harder.
- Take a breastfeeding class.
- Ask your health care provider to recommend a lactation consultant. You can establish a relationship before the baby comes, or be ready if you need help after the baby is born.
- Talk to your health care provider about your health. Discuss any breast surgery or injury you may have had. If you have depression or are taking medications, discuss treatment options that can work with breastfeeding.
- Tell your health care provider that you would like to breastfeed your newborn baby as soon as possible after delivery. The sucking instinct is very strong within the first hour of life.
- Talk to friends who have breastfed.
Learning to Breastfeed
Breastfeeding is a process that takes time to master. Babies and mothers need to practice. Keep in mind that you make milk in response to your baby sucking at the breast. The more milk your baby removes from the breasts, the more milk you will make.
After you have the baby, these steps can help you get off to a great start:
- Breastfeed as soon as possible after birth.
- Ask for an on-site lactation consultant to come help you.
- Ask the staff not to give your baby other food or formula, unless it is medically necessary.
- Allow your baby to stay in your hospital room all day and night so that you can breastfeed often. Or, ask the nurses to bring your baby to you for feedings.
- Try to avoid giving your baby any pacifiers or artificial nipples so that he or she gets used to latching onto just your breast.
Tips for Making It Work
Learn your baby’s hunger signs. When babies are hungry, they become more alert and active. They may put their hands or fists to their mouths, make sucking motions with their mouth, or turn their heads looking for the breast. If anything touches the baby’s cheek—such as a hand—the baby may turn toward the hand, ready to eat. This sign of hunger is called rooting. Offer your breast when your baby shows rooting signs. Crying can be a late sign of hunger, and it may be harder to latch once the baby is upset. Over time, you will be able to learn your baby’s cues for when to start feeding.
Follow your baby’s lead. Make sure you are both comfortable and follow your baby’s lead after he or she is latched on well. Some babies take both breasts at each feeding. Other babies only take one breast at a feeding. Help your baby finish the first breast, as long as he or she is still sucking and swallowing. This will ensure the baby gets the “hind” milk – the fattier milk at the end of a feeding. Your baby will let go of the breast when he or she is finished and often falls asleep. Offer the other breast if he or she seems to want more.
Keep your baby close to you. Remember that your baby is not used to this new world and needs to be held very close to his or her mother. Being skin to skin helps babies cry less and stabilizes the baby’s heart and breathing rates.
Avoid nipple confusion. Avoid using pacifiers, bottles, and supplements of infant formula in the first few weeks unless there is a medical reason to do so. If supplementation is needed, try to give expressed breast milk first. But it’s best just to feed at the breast. This will help you make milk and keep your baby from getting confused while learning to breastfeed.
Sleep safely and close by. Have your baby sleep in a crib or bassinet in your room, so that you can breastfeed more easily at night. Sharing a room with parents is linked to a lower risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
Know when to wake the baby. In the early weeks after birth, you should wake your baby to feed if 4 hours have passed since the beginning of the last feeding. Some tips for waking the baby include:
- Changing your baby’s diaper.
- Placing your baby skin to skin.
- Massaging your baby’s back, abdomen, and legs.
If your baby is falling asleep at the breast during most feedings, talk to the baby’s doctor about a weight check. Also, see a lactation consultant to make sure the baby is latching on well.
Keep in mind that breastfeeding is a learned skill. It requires patience and practice. For some women, the learning stages can be frustrating and uncomfortable. And some situations make breastfeeding even harder, such as babies born early or health problems in the mother. The good news is that it will get easier, and support for breastfeeding mothers is growing.
You are special because you can make the food that is uniquely perfect for your baby. Invest the time in yourself and your baby—for your health and for the bond that will last a lifetime.
Source: U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services