Breastfeeding is the way humans beings have always been fed and nourished. Like all other mammals, we feed our young from the milk that our own bodies make because it’s specially formulated for our little ones. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, then continuing to breastfeeding with the addition of complementary foods for the remainder of the first year. Only until the modern advent of formula did humans decide that there were other ways to feed babies, and though formula is a life-saving medicine for some, breastfeeding provides unparalleled benefits for mom, baby, and society at large. Here are just a few notable benefits:
- Breast milk changes as your baby’s needs change. If your little one is coming down with a cold that was going around daycare, her suck will signal your body to make antibodies to keep her protected from whatever she could catch. Breastfed babies are statistically sick less often than formula-fed babies in the first 2 years of life.
- Mothers who breastfeed are at a reduced risk of getting postpartum depression, breast, and ovarian cancers.
- Because breastfed babies are healthier overall — thank you, protective breastmilk! — caregivers miss less work caring for their little one and job performance doesn’t suffer.
What if I don’t think I can breastfeed?
This is a unbelievably common fear. Only 5% of women are physiologically incapable of breastfeeding, which means that 95% of us have the physical means to breastfeed if this is the path we’ve chosen. Your body and your baby were born to breastfeed, and here’s why:
- Women begin making colostrum, baby’s first milk, between roughly 10-14 weeks of pregnancy. Once baby is born, our breasts begin secreting this thick golden milk that ultimately increases in volume and becomes our mature milk.
- Did you notice your areola, the circular patch around your nipple, darken during the course of pregnancy? That’s your body’s way of turning your breast into a target and helping baby — who’s born legally blind — find your breast successfully.
- Some mothers opt to help their babies find the breast for the first time, but the truth is that babies are born with an innate ability to find the breast all on their own. Called the “breast crawl,” babies positioned skin-to-skin on their mothers’ midline often crawl to and find the breast all on their own (slowly, no doubt; this can take as long as a couple of hours!)
What if I want to breastfeed but don’t know how to get started?
There’s the common misperception that many of us “don’t make enough milk,” but getting breastfeeding off to the right start more often than not means we’ll be able to provide just the right amount of milk our babies need. Here are some tips to get off on the right foot:
- Breastfeeding takes patience, perseverance, and practice. It’s a skill that needs to be cultivated, so remember that the early days and weeks can feel challenging and overwhelming. This doesn’t mean that you’ve failed or you’re not “good” at breastfeeding! Give yourself time to perfect it.
- Breastfeeding works on demand and supply: the more baby demands milk, the more your body will supply. To establish a good supply, keep baby at breast as often as you can in the early days and weeks.
- Feed your baby at least 10 times in 24-hours, letting her lead the way and decide when it’s time. If she’s looking for the breast 11 or 13 or 15 times in 24-hours, all is good! This doesn’t mean that baby isn’t getting enough; on the contrary, it’s her way of signaling to your body to meet her needs, to keep the supply flowing, and to increase it when she’s going through a growth spurt.
- Breastfeeding isn’t supposed to hurt! While you will feel a tugging sensation and your nipples need to toughen up in those early days and weeks, cracked or bleeding nipples mean that something isn’t going well. Pain often means that baby is latched on shallowly, so seeking help from a lactation consultant is advised.
- Try not to introduce the pacifier in the first 3 weeks. All babies are born with the need to suck, but sucking on a pacifier can sometimes inhibit baby from alerting mom that she needs to breastfeed. Once your breastfeeding routine is up and established, the pacifier can be a valuable tool for some babies.
Though breastfeeding is our biological right as women, it doesn’t mean that everyone chooses to breastfeed or that breastfeeding is right for everyone. If you’d like to breastfeed, the goal of lactation educators and consultants is to provide you with as few barriers as possible to reaching your goal.
Sarah Siebold is a native Los Angeleno and mom to cuddly and curious Noah. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Barnard College of Columbia University before receiving her M.A. in English and American Literature from NYU. After some time teaching and tutoring, she studied Pastry and Baking Arts at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City and dove head first into the fast-paced food world. Most recently, Sarah became a Certified Lactation Educator Counselor (CLEC) in 2017 from UC San Diego and feels like her professional interests and passions for teaching and food have coalesced. She pinches herself silly to get to do the work she loves with moms and their sweet babes. You can find Sarah at IMMA Lactation.
Extra reading: “Three Foods Every Breastfeeding Mother Should Eat” by Little Spoon