Everything you need to know about feeding your baby yourself.
By Mamas & Papas
From how much milk a baby needs, to how often they should feed, and what to do if you’re struggling,
here’s everything you ought to know about breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is one of the best things you can do for your baby, and even if you’re struggling and only manage a few feeds, your child will still benefit.
The milk you naturally produce is like a magical elixir, packed with antibodies that help protect babies from infections and diseases, which reduce the risk of everything from diarrhoea to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), leukaemia, diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Research has even shown that the positive effects last well beyond the early years, with adults who were breastfed as babies spending longer in school and having higher IQs.
It doesn’t end here though, as there are bonuses for mothers, too. Breastfeeding has been shown to lower your risk of breast cancer, heart disease and obesity. It gives you time to bond with your baby and, as you’re using up extra calories, you can get away with having a couple more biscuits, too.
It’s no wonder, then, that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusively feeding your baby breast milk for the first six months. Yet figures show the UK has the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the world. That may be because, although it’s a natural process, breastfeeding doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and some will need more support.
“You may find breastfeeding a piece of cake, or it may be a real challenge,” says midwife Clare Byam-Cook, the maternity nurse behind the how-to DVD Breastfeeding Without Tears. “Your experience depends as much on your own biology – how much milk you produce and how fast it flows – as your baby’s biology. Some babies instinctively know what to do, others take a little while to get the hang of it, so allow a few weeks for both of you to get in sync.”
While you may expect breastfeeding to come naturally, it can take a bit of practice at first. Follow Clare’s tips to help you get into the swing of things.
“Relax in a supportive chair and place a pillow – an ordinary firm bed pillow is best – under your baby to bring them to the same height as your breast. It takes a little practice to hold a small, wriggly baby confidently, so the pillow really helps to support them.”
“Position your baby’s top lip to your nipple – this movement can automatically make your baby open their mouth to latch on. If your baby can’t open their mouth wide enough to get a nice deep latch, squeeze your breast as if you were squishing a parcel into a letterbox – it makes a better shape for them to latch on to.”
“Now you should see your baby give quick, little, shallow sucks, which then change to deeper, more rhythmic sucks. That shows they’re feeding well.” You will probably feel a ‘let-down’, a surge flowing through your breast that feels almost electric. Don’t panic: it passes.
“When your baby’s sucking starts slowing and becomes shallower, use your finger on their lip to break the seal, and take them off your breast. Wind your baby by sitting them up and rubbing their back, then offer them your other breast. When they won’t suck any more – they may take anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes each side – that’s when you know they’ve had enough.”
A newborn baby should be feeding around every two hours. That may sound like a lot, but feeds are very short for the first three or four days, because this is when you produce colostrum. Colostrum is a potent pre-milk, produced during pregnancy and the first days of breastfeeding. It’s insanely rich in protective antibodies, meaning they only need about a teaspoon of colostrum each feed.
“When your milk supply is properly established – which takes around two weeks – your baby is likely to be able to go up to three hours between feeds,” says Clare. “You’ll know your baby is getting enough milk if you can lie them down without them crying. If they’re feeding every hour, they’re probably not getting a full feed, only a snack.” If you think your baby isn’t getting a full feed, check you have the latch right (see below).
If all this feeding sounds exhausting, don’t worry. “Over time, your baby will be able to hold more milk in their tummy,” assures Clare, who says a three-month-old baby will start to go four hours between day feeds and could only need one at night. “Gradually you’ll work out how much milk you have and how long it takes for your baby to get a full feed.”
Is your baby putting their hands to their mouth? Are they opening their mouth and turning their head from side to side? Have they woken up from a nice sleep in tears?
“If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, then your baby wants milk,” confirms Clare. “You’ll know they’re definitely hungry when you latch them onto your breast and they start sucking efficiently.”
Latching, or getting your baby to attach to your breast, is a skill that you may need to work on a bit at first. These tips should help.
“Holding your baby in position, stroke your nipple over their top lip to help their mouth open wide,” says Clare. “You want them to have as much breast as possible in their mouth, not just your nipple. Their nose should be touching your breast.”
If your baby is chewing on your nipple but not taking any deep sucks, then they may not be latched on correctly. “When you take them off your breast, you may find your nipple is squashed into a lipstick shape,” says Clare. “That’s another sign they're not latched on properly.
“You’ll know you’ve got it right when you see your baby doing deep rhythmic sucks, and your nipples don't hurt.”
Most babies will give clear signals when they’re full, including:
If your baby stops feeding, then that can be a good indicator that they've finished. While some babies can take their time, and stop and start, you can trust that when they've had enough, they'll show you.
If you manage to get two or three good burps out of your child, that's a great sign they've had enough.
If your child looks content and satisfied after a feed, there's a good chance they are.
If your child goes to sleep in their, only waking two or three hours later for their next feed, it's a good indicator.
A well-fed baby will also produce lots of wet nappies and be steadily gaining weight.
And if your mini nipple-latching monster hasn’t had enough milk, you’ll know about that, too. “If your baby’s still hungry, they’ll cry as soon as you put them down, or doze for 20 minutes,” explains Clare. “It’s because they’ve used your breast as a dummy and not actually sucked enough milk to satisfy them.”
Like the first time you attempt anything, you're bound to have worries and concerns, especially when it comes to your baby and your own safety. But it's important to remember that these niggles are nothing that any other new parent doesn't experience. The best way to combat those fears is to research it before hand, so here we've pulled together a list of the biggest worries new mums have.
It shouldn’t. “Right from the word go, if you latch your baby on correctly, breastfeeding should never be painful,” assures Clare. “That said, like a pair of new shoes, it can take a while to fit comfortably.
If you’re struggling or in pain, ask an expert like your health visitor, GP or a lactation consultant to watch as you latch your baby on, as they are trained to adjust you into the perfect position. A good latch can help you avoid painful problems such as cracked nipples and mastitis, where your breast tissue becomes inflamed.
“If your expert can’t help, get a second opinion from another one,” says Clare. “If no-one can help you, then give your baby a bottle of formula and congratulate yourself for trying.”
Because you can’t see how much your baby is drinking, it’s natural to question whether you’re producing enough milk, but Clare says almost all of the thousands of new mums she’s worked with have been able to produce enough milk for their babies.
At the risk of looking like we’ve gone copy+paste crazy, make sure your baby is latching on. “A good latch means your baby will feed easily and encourage you to produce more milk,” says Clare. “If you’re really worried you’ve not got enough milk, use a breast pump for a few minutes after feeding to increase your rate of production.
“It’s also crucial to look after yourself as eating, drinking and resting well will all help you produce milk," explains Clare. "If you’ve tried everything and still think your baby is insatiably hungry, then that’s what the odd bottle of formula is for.”
Your body is pretty clever: it will naturally absorb any milk your baby doesn’t need. But if your breasts are really uncomfortably engorged, Clare recommends expressing a little excess to take the edge off. “Be warned though: the more milk you take out, the more milk you will produce to replace it.”
Try wearing pads inside your bra – you can get boxes of disposables or use washable ones. “Your let-down reflex may be quite strong at first, so it’s worth carrying a few extra pads in your change bag to avoid showing a leak while you’re out and about,” says Clare. As your baby starts packing in long stretches of sleep overnight – it WILL happen, promise – you may feel more comfortable wearing an extra set of pads in your night bra until your milk supply adjusts to your baby’s new nighttime rhythm.
“Of course,” says Clare. But then, you’d expect a breastfeeding expert to say that.
While we hope these questions take some of that worry away, we know that it's hard to overcome until you actually start. However, it's best to remember that millions of new parents have been where you are now, and while it may all feel new and daunting, you'll get the hang of it with a bit of practice.
“I screamed when my six-month-old baby bit me during feeding. But my reaction scared him so much he didn’t try using his teeth on me again. And breastfeeding definitely helped soothe his teething pain. I know it sounds weird until you’ve tried it, but when your baby is latched on properly you don’t feel any sharp teeth at all.”