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How does breastfeeding work?

Breastfeeding is when a mother feeds her baby milk from her breasts. Simply put, the baby puts their mouth on their mother’s breast and sucks the milk out.

  1. Once your baby’s lower lip is stimulated, they will open their mouth wide, bringing their tongue forward.
  2. Their tongue draws your nipple, areola, and breast tissue well back into their mouth, forming a longer nipple.
  3. Your baby’s tongue cups and sweeps your nipple from front to back in a wave-like manner, pressing it up against the roof of their mouth. They gently use their gums as well as their jaw and cheek muscles to squeeze as much of your areola as possible.
  4. The rhythmic movements of your baby’s tongue and jaw together cause milk to flow from your breast, making them swallow. You will notice a rhythm: suck, swallow, breathe; suck, swallow, breathe.

Will my body make enough milk?

While your baby is breastfeeding, your body is making milk. To have continuous milk production, you should:

  • Let your baby feed frequently. The more you breastfeed, the more milk your breasts produce.
  • Allow your baby to finish the first breast before you offer them the second breast. Making sure that your baby is well-positioned and latching on correctly will help empty your breasts.

To take care of yourself, make sure you:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Water, milk, and juice are good choices.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet.
  • Get plenty of rest–sleep when your baby sleeps.

Getting Started

Most newborns are hungry as soon as they’re born, so the delivery room is the perfect place to breastfeed for the first time. Have someone lay your baby skin-to-skin on your chest or abdomen immediately after delivery – this will keep them warm and put your baby in proximity for feeding. (Any newborn tests can be done while you’re with your baby or a little while later.) Ask too if you can keep your newborn in your hospital room with you at all times so that you can breastfeed whenever they are hungry.

Take time during the rest of your hospital stay to ask the staff for advice and help with breastfeeding. Inquire if there is a lactation consultant available – they can provide additional assistance with feeding positions, latch-on or anything else that may concern you. Read on for some tips to help you get breastfeeding off to a great beginning.

Feeding Positions

You and your baby may find one position easier to manage than another. Try these, with plenty of pillows for back and arm support.

Cradle: Bend your arm corresponding to the breast on which you’re feeding at the elbow so that your forearm is across your lap, with your palm toward you. Nestle your baby’s head in the crook of your elbow with their body resting against your forearm and palm.

Cross-cradle: Place your baby on a pillow on your lap so that their legs are opposite the breast they are feeding on. Use your hand opposite the feeding breast to support their head and neck, resting your arm on the pillow.

Side-lying: Lie on your side with your baby facing you. Use your arm or a pillow to support their back and keep him from rolling away from you. Great for middle-of-the-night feeding.

Football or clutch: Hold your baby so that their body is along your side and their legs and feet are tucked under your upper arm. Use your hand to support their head and your lower arm to support their back.

Latching On

Latch-on is the phrase used to describe the suction your baby’s mouth forms over your nipple when they breastfeed. Done properly, it makes nursing painless and efficient, so take your time getting it right.

  1. Chose the feeding position that feels most comfortable, and hold your baby’s head so that they are facing you, not the ceiling.
  2. Start by touching your nipple to the center of your baby’s lips.
  3. When they open their mouth wide, bring it to your breast so that it covers your nipple and areola (the dark circle around your nipple) and their lips are flared out.
  4. As you hold your baby with one hand, use the other to support the breast on which they are feeding. Hold the breast with your fingers underneath and your thumb on top, keeping your fingers away from the areola.

It’s normal to feel a tugging sensation during breastfeeding. If you feel pain or pinching, break the suction by slipping your finger into the corner of your baby’s mouth, and try again. Soon you’ll both get used to latching on.

Feeding Time

Breastfed newborns nurse 8 to 12 times during a 24-hour period – that’s every two to three hours throughout the day and night. Let your baby nurse on both breasts at each feeding, and try to empty your breasts as much as possible. If your newborn sleeps for more than three to four hours at a time, wake them up to breastfeed by speaking softly and slowly or giving them a gentle massage. Putting your newborn on a regular feeding schedule will help you build up your milk supply, which normally takes about two to three weeks.

A common concern of breastfeeding mothers is whether or not their baby is getting enough milk. Generally, you can be assured that your baby is satisfied if they seem content for around two to three hours between feedings, sleeps well, looks alert when awake and shows steady weight gain after a week of age. You can also track their dirty diapers. They should have six or more wet diapers and two to three bowel movements a day in the first few weeks of life. If you do sense that there’s a problem, contact your pediatrician, or a lactation consultant. Support from the professionals will help you breastfeed successfully.

When Breastfeeding is a Pain

Common breastfeeding problems can sometimes turn this natural experience into a painful one, but try these remedies to get back on track quickly.

Soothe sore or cracked nipples by patting them dry between feedings and applying a little breast milk or medical grade lanolin cream. Use nursing pads inside your bra to soak up leaking milk, and wash your breasts with water only.

If your breasts become engorged, or too full of milk, try using a breast pump to express milk between feedings. Warm washcloths applied to the breast before feeding can help encourage let down, but severe engorgement requires cold compresses to reduce swelling (try a bag of frozen peas). Massage your breast, moving your hand from under your arm down toward the nipple, to relieve soreness.

An infection called mastitis starts when bacteria grows in a blocked milk duct and causes swelling, burning, redness, pain and possibly a fever. It usually occurs in one breast and often requires treatment with antibiotics. Get plenty of rest and apply heat (such as a heating pad or warm washcloth) to the infected area. Keep breastfeeding or pumping to drain the infected duct – the infection won’t spread to your breast milk, so it’s perfectly safe for your baby.

Additional Resources

QMG’s lactation specialists can help new mothers learn to breastfeed. Click here to learn more.

La Leche League International has a lot of great information as well. Click here to explore their website or check out some of the most common topics below.