Planning to breastfeed your new baby? As a first time mom, the thought of breastfeeding can feel a bit intimidating at times. But there’s really no reason to stress with breastfeeding 101.
What most new moms need in order to successfully breastfeed their new baby is a simple guide to get them started. Despite the general push to breastfeed in the mom community, basic breastfeeding 101 information is often neglected.
While it’s absolutely true that breastfeeding your baby is a natural thing to do, it doesn’t mean that it comes naturally. Like most things in the journey of motherhood, breastfeeding is a skill that is learned. And that’s good news!
In this post, we’re going to cover all the need to know basics to get you started on your breastfeeding journey and set you up for success.
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Breastfeeding 101: An Ultimate Guide
What is breastfeeding?
Maybe you’re sitting here wondering what breastfeeding really is. Simply put, breastfeeding is feeding your baby milk made by your body. Your baby’s milk is produced in your breasts, and hence the name.
When most people think of breastfeeding, they immediately think of nursing a baby. When you nurse, your baby will latch onto your breast over your nipple, and suck the milk out. While this is the most commonly thought of way to breastfeed, it is not the only way.
One commonly overlooked way to breastfeed is by pumping breast milk with a breast pump. This pumped breast milk is then fed to your baby with a bottle. Whether you exclusively pump and bottle feed, or do a mix of pumping and nursing, it is all still breastfeeding. The important thing is for your baby to get the breast milk.
For the purpose of this post, I’m going to focus more on nursing, and go into more detail on pumping in a future post.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding?
There are many benefits of breastfeeding, both for baby and for mom. First, let’s look at some of the benefits for baby. Some of the breastfeeding benefits for your baby include:
- A healthy source of the nutrients baby needs
- Your milk will adjust to meet baby’s specific needs at different stages
- Antibodies are passed through your milk to baby
There are also many benefits of breastfeeding for mom as well. Some of those benefits include the following:
- Breastfeeding after delivery helps signal your uterus to contract and shrink
- Breastfeeding can help you lose baby weight (for some, but not all moms)
- Nursing can help mom bond with baby
Additionally, it should be noted that feeding baby breast milk is also much cheaper than formula feeding. Of course, breastfeeding is not for everyone, and some may find it a greater drain than a benefit. And that’s okay.
Do what you think is best for you, your baby, and your family. And it’s okay to try breastfeeding and later stop if you find it’s not working for you.
How does your body make breast milk?
Inside your breast, there are clusters of cells called alveoli, where your breast milk is produced (source). These cells are responsible for making milk based on demand—the more frequently they are emptied, the more milk they will produce.
From there, the milk travels through milk ducts to your nipple, where you baby nurses or where you can express or pump breast milk to be bottle fed.
Components of breast milk
Colostrum is the very first “breast milk” your baby will get, and is very important for your newborn. It is thicker and more yellow than mature milk, and is extremely nutrient dense.
Colostrum contains everything your baby needs for the first few days of life. Within a few days to a week after birth, your milk will “come in” and your breasts will begin to produce mature breast milk.
Mature breast milk is thinner than colostrum, and typically a lighter yellow or white color. While colostrum is extremely nutrient dense, mature milk has two parts: foremilk and hindmilk.
The foremilk is the first milk that comes out during a nursing session. This milk has most of the nutrients in it. After your baby gets the foremilk, it gradually turns to hindmilk. The main difference between the types of milk is that hindmilk is fattier and has more calories in it.
Because there is both foremilk and hindmilk, you want to make sure your baby nurses long enough on one breast to empty it, and therefore get both the fore- and hindmilk. The fat and calories are important to ensure your baby gains weight and has the fat needed for development.
Breastfeeding 101: Getting Started
Essentials for breastfeeding
As you’re preparing for the arrival of your baby, it’s important to be sure to have everything you need for breastfeeding. While there are tons of breastfeeding products out there to choose from and aid you, for breastfeeding 101, you really only need a few things.
Think of this as a minimalist’s guide to your breastfeeding essentials. For more breastfeeding essentials, check out this post.
A boppy pillow was probably my most used item for nursing. Although there are multiple kinds of nursing pillows to choose from, I personally liked a U-shaped one, commonly known referred to as a boppy pillow.
Nursing pillows give you extra support holding your baby, which is extremely helpful. When you are nursing, your arms tend to get tired from holding your baby all the time. A nursing pillow is a great solution for this. It can also help you to correctly position your baby for a good latch.
Whether you plan to nurse or pump, burp cloths are a must for new moms. After you finish nursing, you’ll need to burp your baby. Don’t skip this step!
When your baby feeds, whether by nursing or bottle feeding, he will inevitably suck in some air as well. Leaving this air trapped in your baby’s belly can cause a lot of discomfort, and potentially more serious problems.
Of course, when you burp baby, your little one may burp up a little bit of milk as well. While that’s okay, you’ll want a burp cloth to catch it and clean up any dribbles.
I’ve personally found that prefold cloth diapers work the best for burp cloths. This is because they are made to be highly absorbent. But if you’d prefer something prettier, there are tons of beautiful burp clothes out there to choose from.
Comfortable Nursing Chair
You can plan on spending a lot of time nursing or pumping and bottle feeding your baby. And that’s why you should really have a comfortable, supportive nursing chair. Although you don’t have to get a nursing specific chair, you may want to since they are typically made to be more supportive for nursing.
About a year after I had my baby, I started getting excruciating pain in my neck. Long story short, we found out that the tendons in my neck where extremely inflamed from constantly looking down while nursing and holding Elijah.
In retrospect, I think part of this was caused because the chair I had used to nurse in wasn’t very supportive. The chair was too big for me, and far too soft to keep me in a good position. It messed up how I was sitting, which in turn caused me to sit in a way that wasn’t good for my neck. Don’t make the same mistake—invest in a firm but comfortable chair that supports you well.
Again, you’ll be spending a lot of time nursing. To make this easier, invest in some good nursing bras and/or tanks to make things easier. Be sure that the one you choose has enough support, and is also easy to undo for quick access. Nursing tanks can be super helpful for nursing in public, since they keep your midsection covered while still allowing you to nurse.
Particularly in the beginning, you can expect your breasts to leak a bit. This is most common before your milk has regulated, which usually happens a few weeks after you begin breastfeeding.
Nursing pads are thin pads that sit between your bra and nipple, and catch any milk that is leaked. Personally, I prefer these reusable bamboo nursing pads, but I have also used Medela and Lansinoh disposable pads as well.
When you first start breastfeeding, it’s common for your nipples to get sore. Sometimes, they can even get cracked and bleed. To prevent and treat this, get some nipple cream to use after every nursing session.
What cream works best may vary from person to person. Personally, the only thing that worked for me was using antibacterial ointment, but I think I had a pretty severe case and failed to use it consistently from the start. However, many other moms have had great success with Lanolin cream, Boobease cream, and Earth Mama Organic Nipple Butter.
Even if you plan to exclusively pump, I recommend getting a breast pump. Consider it a backup in case your baby is unable to nurse for some reason—mine once refused to nurse for a solid two weeks while he was teething. Having it as an option also allows you to pump extra for your own use, donate excess milk, and gives you the freedom to be away for longer periods of time if needed.
Under the Affordable Care Act, most health insurances are required to fully cover a breast pump for you. Some will even cover extras and replacement parts as well. At the very least, grab a manual pump to keep around for emergencies.
If you plan to pump occasionally or regularly, you’ll need the following:
- Breast Pump (electric and/or manual)
- Pump Parts (make sure to get the ones that go with your specific pump)
- Extra Parts (again, be sure they go with your pump)
- Milk Storage Bags
- Pumping Bra
- Bottles & Nipples
- Bottle Brush
- Drying Rack
The golden hour
The golden hour is the first hour after birth, and can be important for breastfeeding. During this first hour, you should definitely do skin to skin and try to breastfeed your newborn. This early attempt can be very helpful for establishing good breastfeeding.
Of course, sometimes it just doesn’t happen, and if that’s the case for you, don’t stress out about it. Sometimes mom or baby (or both) just aren’t up to it. Other times, it’s just not a possibility.
Personally, I completely missed the golden hour due to my son being born with a small hole in his lung. For obvious reasons, he had to be taken for tests and treatment within just a few minutes of birth. Despite the setback, we ended up being able to establish breastfeeding with relatively few problems.
Breastfeeding 101: Nursing Positions
It may come as a surprise to you, but there are actually several different positions in which you can nurse. Most people who haven’t breastfed before typically think of the position that’s known as the cradle hold whenever they think of breastfeeding. However, there are several others, including the following:
- Cradle hold
- Crossover hold
- Football hold
- Tandem hold/nursing
Definitely take time to learn each one and try them out. Some positions may work better for some moms, while others don’t work as well. Give them all a try and then do whatever works best for you and your baby.
One big pro to knowing the different positions is that you can switch between different positions as needed. Sometimes if you use the same position too much, it can cause your nipples to get sore in spots or even blister—this is more common early on. Using different positions in different nursing sessions will help to avoid this problem, and help ensure your breast is completely emptied.
Getting baby to latch
Getting your baby to latch properly is an art that is learned. Don’t feel bad or frustrated if it takes a little bit to get the hang of it. Remember, neither you nor your baby has done this before. Give yourselves some grace.
Simply put, the latch is how your baby holds your nipple in his mouth and sucks the milk out. Ideally, you want a deep latch, because it will be the most effective as well as the most comfortable.
To get a good latch, you want to get your baby to open his mouth wide. Aim for his chin and lower lip to be touching your breast below your nipple before allowing him to latch on.
Here are some signs that your baby has a good latch:
- Lips are flayed out
- Chin and nose are touching the breast (source)
- Baby’s mouth is covering the aerola (the darker circle around your nipple)
- It is comfortable and not painful
Supply and demand (the key to breastfeeding 101)
Before we continue on, I want to take a quick minute to talk about supply and demand. Your breasts will only make as much milk as is being emptied. Of course, there are exceptions, such as as when a woman has an oversupply. But in general, your breasts will only make as much as is being used.
If your baby is not eating as much as your breast is making, it will begin to make less to fit the needs of your baby. Of course, this is assuming that you are not pumping any leftover milk after your baby nurses. The rule of thumb is that the emptier your breast is, the more milk it will make.
If your baby continuously empties your breast, it will signal your body that your baby needs more milk and it will begin to make more to meet that need. Typically your milk will begin to regulate a few weeks after your baby is born. After that, your body will make just as much as your baby needs. Assuming, of course, that you don’t have an under-supply or oversupply.
How often to feed baby
Many new moms wonder how often they should be breastfeeding their baby. It is definitely recommended that you feed your baby on demand, meaning you feed him whenever he shows signs of being hungry. As a newborn, your baby should be eating approximately every 2-3 hours, although it may be more frequently. When your baby cluster feeds, he will want to feed several times per hour, often close together.
As your baby grows, your breasts will make more milk and your baby will consume more per session. For this reason, you can expect that time between nursing sessions will begin to lengthen as your baby grows.
Breastfeeding 101: FAQs
How do you know if baby is getting enough milk?
One of the many, many things moms worry about is whether their baby is getting enough to eat. And with breastfeeding, the worry can get even worse because you can’t visibly see how much your baby is actually eating.
Pumping can give you a general idea of how much your baby is eating, but keep in mind that pumping does not express as much milk as your baby is able to get out by nursing. So if you are unable to pump as much as you think you need, keep in mind that your baby is probably getting more from nursing than from what you’ve pumped.
If your baby is getting enough breast milk, he will seem satisfied after a feeding. But the best sign is that he is continuing to put on weight appropriate for his age, and having enough wet diapers. The amount of diapers changes as your baby grows, but your newborn should be having at least 6-8 wet diapers every day once your milk comes in (source). Of course, don’t be surprised if your baby has more than that!
What if your milk supply drops?
Another big concern for a new mom is the potential for milk supply to suddenly drop. It can be a bit intimidating knowing you are your baby’s source of food, and the potential for that to disappear can be nerve wracking. Best advice? Don’t stress out about it.
Stress can cause your supply to drop, so there’s no sense in worrying about it unless it actually happens. If your supply does drop, the best thing you can do is to create more demand by having your baby nurse often. However, you also need to make sure that your breast is being emptied of milk. Remember that your body makes milk based on demand.
To cue your body to make more milk, you need to frequently empty your breast of all milk, either by nursing or pumping (or pumping after and between nursing). Another thing you need to do is to be sure you are drinking enough water. You can also try boosting it with lactation snacks and smoothies.
What if you don’t want to breastfeed?
There’s a lot of pressure on new moms these days to do all the “right” things. But if you don’t want to breastfeed, don’t sweat it. Formula is a perfectly fine option, and if it’s what works best for you and your family than go for it.
Many moms start out breastfeeding and later on stop for various reasons. Sometimes their supply drops or dries up completely, or it’s too taxing on their mental health. There are so many reasons you may not want to or are unable to. Don’t let it make you feel unnecessary mom guilt. There is no medal for breastfeeding—or most of the other things we put on a pedestal.
How to handle pain?
Breastfeeding done correctly should not be painful. If it hurts to breastfeed, your baby may be latched incorrectly. If this is the case, make your baby release your breast and relatch. be sure to break the latch with your finger so that you don’t damage your nipple. Don’t get sloppy about getting a deep latch every time. If you do, you can develop problems that lead to pain.
In the very beginning, it is likely that your nipples will be sore until they toughen up. This process may take a few weeks. This can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful. If this is the case, you might try switching nursing positions, pumping for a few feeds, or using a nipple shield.
You may have a clogged duct or possibly mastitis, a painful inflammation, if you are experiencing pain in your actual breast tissue. If you suspect either, definitely talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
Breastfeeding 101: Tips For New Moms
Related: Breastfeeding Tips For New Moms
Prepare before baby arrives if possible
One of the best things you should do to set yourself up for breastfeeding success is to prepare before your baby is even delivered. You can do this by learning as much as you can about breastfeeding.
While some birth classes briefly cover breastfeeding basics, I recommend you also take a breastfeeding specific course. One well known and frequently recommended online breastfeeding course is Milkology. While I have not taken it myself, it is well recommended by other moms.
A good breastfeeding course will take you well past breastfeeding 101 basics, and give you focused help on specific issues you may encounter.
Ask for a lactation consultant right away
Regardless of where you give birth (hospital, birth center, or home birth), I highly recommend asking for a lactation consultant right away. I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful the lactation consultant was that helped me after Elijah was born. Getting that one on one help truly is priceless.
Get support on your journey
Although breastfeeding is often encouraged, it tends to lack support on the actual journey. If you truly want to succeed, consider getting yourself a support system to help you along the way.
Family and friends can be great supporters. Also ask the hospital or your midwife if there is a breastfeeding support group in your area. Breastfeeding support groups are a huge help, and are often attended by a certified lactation consultant or other breastfeeding specialist.
Set a goal — but don’t stress
One question you can expect from your doctor and your baby’s pediatrician is what your goal is for breastfeeding. Often times, this is in reference to the amount of time you hope to feed your baby breast milk. If you’re unsure what goal to set, many moms choose six months to a year.
By all means, set a goal. It’s hard to reach a goal that you haven’t actually set. However, don’t let yourself stress out about it! Things change, and sometimes our goals don’t always come to fruition. It’s okay. You’re not a bad mom if you choose to stop sooner, and you have nothing to feel guilty about.
Invest in a pump — even if you plan to exclusively nurse
Even if you plan to exclusively nurse, I recommend getting a breast pump as a backup at the very least. You never know when you may find yourself separated from your baby for an extended period of time.
Personally, I found it very helpful to pump just a few times per week. While I didn’t save up much of a freezer stash, I made sure to always have enough in the fridge or freezer for when we went to church or went out. Elijah also refused to nurse for a solid two weeks while he was teething—I was very glad to have a pump during this time!
So you never know when you might need it. Most insurances typically cover pumps, and they are always good backup plans. And, it’s very easy to get one.
Breastfeeding 101: You Got This!
Let’s hear from you—are you planning to breastfeed your baby? Drop any questions you may have in the comments below!