Experts agree that breast is best. The World Health Organization recommends breast milk as baby's only source of nutrition for the first six months of life, followed by continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond [source: World Health Organization]. The American Academy of Pediatrics, meanwhile, encourages six months of exclusive breastfeeding and a year or more of continued breastfeeding, citing numerous benefits for both mother and child [source: American Academy of Pediatrics].
Just because breastfeeding is optimal doesn't mean it's always easy. Studies show that lots of new moms struggle with nursing, particularly in the early weeks [source: Shute]. Along with the need to go back to work and concerns about low milk supply, problems such as pain and latching difficulties rank among the most common reasons women wean their babies early [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].
Breastfeeding is a learned skill that requires patience and practice, so women need plenty of support and guidance in order to succeed. Follow these top 10 tips to start things off right.
10. Take a class
In your final months of pregnancy, don't forget about breastfeeding when you study up on childbirth and infant care. If your regular classes don't cover nursing, sign up for an additional course, seminar or private session.
"Postpartum breastfeeding support is always helpful," says Emily Cohen-Moreira, a certified lactation counselor who also teaches childbirth classes and serves as a labor support doula. "But if you can begin to understand the fundamentals of breastfeeding before your baby's birth, you're in a better position to succeed from day one."
Indeed, studies suggest that women who attend prenatal breastfeeding classes are more likely to still be nursing at six months [source: Rosen]. Contact your hospital or local La Leche League Group to see what's available.
9. Breastfeed right after birth
If you have a complication-free delivery, place your naked baby on your bare chest immediately after he or she arrives, Cohen-Moreira advises. "Not only is it a beautiful and memorable experience, but it's a great opportunity to encourage breastfeeding," she says.
Immediate skin-to-skin contact can lead to longer and more successful breastfeeding, research has shown [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. Newborns tend to be particularly alert during the first hour of life, and many will begin nursing spontaneously during this time. Talk to your doctor or midwife about delaying nonessential medical care, such as vaccines, so that you and baby can enjoy this unique moment together [source: Office on Women's Health].
Experts also recommend that babies stay in their mothers' hospital rooms rather than in a nursery. This helps new moms learn infant feeding cues and establish breastfeeding patterns as quickly as possible [source: Centers for Disease Control].
8. Wait to introduce a bottle
If your baby's gaining enough weight and nursing regularly, it's wise to avoid bottles in the early days. "Wait until three or four weeks, or until breastfeeding is well established," Cohen-Moreira suggests. "Meals at the breast are slow, and babies spend a long time eating. With the bottle, on the other hand, the rate of flow is constant and fast, so babies can overeat easily. If they realize that a bottle takes less work, they may be less eager to breastfeed."
Don't delay bottles indefinitely, however, especially if you're planning to go back to work or leave baby home with anyone else while you step out. "If bottle feeding is going to be part of the equation at any point, you want to introduce a bottle relatively early and give one regularly, at least a couple times a week," Cohen-Moreira says. "You don't want the challenge of a baby who refuses the bottle when you start working again or simply want to get a babysitter."
Moms who intend to frequently express breast milk for their babies should get a high-quality breast pump and allow extra time for learning how to use it, Cohen-Moreira adds.
7. Take probiotics
Many nursing women suffer from a yeast infection in the breast, known as thrush. They're particularly susceptible if they receive antibiotics before, during or after delivery [source: BabyCenter].
Though common and relatively harmless, it can cause burning or stabbing pain in the nipples, along with other symptoms that include itchiness and sensitivity, Cohen-Moreira says. "Thrush can make nursing very painful, so it should be dealt with right away," she explains. "Call your doctor or midwife so they can prescribe a topical medication or an oral antifungal."
To ward off thrush in the first place, Cohen-Moreira tells all of her nursing clients to take a daily dose of probiotics. Not only can these supplements encourage a healthy balance of yeast, but they're also good for your digestion and baby's too, she says. There's even some evidence that probiotics can ease crying in colicky babies [source: O'Connor].
6. Nip engorgement in the bud
Along with thrush, engorgement is another frequent complaint among new mothers in the early days of breastfeeding, Cohen-Moreira says. Engorgement occurs when the volume of milk in the breast exceeds its storage capacity, causing painful swelling. It tends to strike when your milk comes in during the first week after delivery [source: Walker].
"Learn how to deal with engorgement right away, because it can become a larger problem if it's not addressed," Cohen-Moreira advises. "You can wind up with clogged ducts or mastitis, a painful infection. Also, babies can have a hard time latching on to engorged breasts."
You can relieve engorgement-related discomfort with breast massage, warm compresses and soaking, says Cohen-Moreira. Most importantly, keep nursing your baby to empty your breasts and keep milk flowing.
5. Join a support group
Nursing can be draining -- physically, emotionally, literally. It can also be very isolating when you're cooped up at home struggling with sore nipples, supply issues, a baby who won't latch, middle-of-the-night feedings or a partner who can't seem to empathize.
That's why participating in a group -- whether it's geared toward breastfeeding or for new moms in general -- can be enjoyable and comforting for nursing mothers. "You can sometimes feel like you're going insane when you have a new little one and are breastfeeding around the clock," says Cohen-Moreira. "But it's a shared experience that can seem more manageable when you see that everyone else feels the same way."
Many hospitals, birthing centers and pediatric practices host weekly get-togethers for moms and their newborns, and La Leche League facilitates free monthly meetings in many areas of the United States and beyond. You can also search sites such as Meetup.com for breastfeeding and parenting groups near you.
4. Get comfortable
You'll be spending much of your day with a baby at the breast, so don't settle for an awkward position that leads to neck and back pain, tired arms or, for cesarean section moms, pressure on your incision. "Roughly eight pounds of baby, 12 times a day, while you're recovering from a birth," says Cohen-Moreira. "If you're not totally comfortable, that really starts to weigh on you."
Cohen-Moreira recommends using pillows -- either specially made for breastfeeding or any old cushions -- to help support your body and your baby. It can also help to raise your lap by propping your feet on a stool or large book.
The optimal nursing setup includes everything you need within arm's reach, such as a glass of water, a snack, the remote control and your phone, adds Cohen-Moreira. "With practice and experimentation, breastfeeding should eventually become one-handed or hands-free," she explains. "It makes your life a lot easier when you can eat a sandwich, send a text message or get some work done while feeding your baby."
3. Follow baby's hunger cues
Doctors used to recommend putting newborns on a strict eating schedule, but experts now advise breastfeeding "on demand" -- that is, whenever baby shows signs of hunger [source: World Health Organization]. "Unless a pediatrician says otherwise, nurse as soon as you notice any hunger cues," Cohen-Moreira says.
Crying often means that baby desperately wants to eat, and it's best to offer the breast before he or she becomes frantic enough to start wailing, she explains. Watch your newborn for more subtle signals such as rooting, lip smacking or a hand in the mouth.
As long as your baby is gaining weight and producing enough wet and soiled diapers, there's no need to watch the clock, Cohen-Moreira notes. In fact, it may be perfectly normal for him or her to "cluster feed" -- nurse continuously for several hours -- and then take a four-hour break.
"Cluster feeding is normal and does not mean that you have a low supply," she says. "It's also fine for baby to go more than the recommended two hours between breastfeeding sessions. As long as you have at least eight to 12 feedings in a 24-hour period for a newborn, that should be adequate."
2. Perfect baby's latch
To ensure breastfeeding success, it's important to encourage a proper latch, or how the baby attaches to your breast, from the very first feeding, Cohen-Moreira says. That's because a poor latch can cause pain, damage your nipples and hinder milk production by preventing efficient stimulation of the breasts.
"Our instinct as new mothers is to be a martyr for the baby and suffer through the pain, but it's better for you to get a proper latch as often as possible and unlatch if it's painful," explains Cohen-Moreira. "Use positive reinforcement to teach your baby how to breastfeed effectively. If the latch isn't right, use your finger to break the suction, take them off the nipple and try again. When they achieve a good latch, the reward is that they get to continue nursing."
So what does a proper latch look like? "The baby should have as much breast tissue as possible in their mouth, not just the nipple," says Cohen-Moreira. "Envision the nipple going straight back into the baby's mouth so it's past the gums and the hard palate, in the area between the tongue and the soft palate. If you have a proper latch, the baby's lips are flanged out around the breast tissue, and you'll see a wide angle at the corner of the mouth."
1. Get help early
Whether it's a poor latch, pain, engorgement, thrush, supply issues or any other challenge, breastfeeding problems deserve your prompt attention. "Otherwise, they can snowball into something much bigger and result in an earlier end to nursing than you wanted or expected," Cohen-Moreira says.
If you need guidance while you're still in the hospital, ask to see the lactation counselor on duty. To find an expert in your area, talk to your doctor, midwife or pediatrician, or visit the website of the International Lactation Consultant Association.
Lots More Information
- The Benefits of Breastfeeding
- Breastfeeding Overview
- Breastfeeding Basics: What You Need to Know to Get Started
More Great Links
- American Academy of Pediatrics. "Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk." Pediatrics. February 27, 2012. (November 10, 2013) http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/3/e827.full#content-block
- BabyCenter. "Thrush in breastfeeding moms." (November 10, 2013) http://www.babycenter.com/0_thrush-in-breastfeeding-moms_8486.bc
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "PRAMS and Breastfeeding." (November 10, 2013) http://www.cdc.gov/prams/Breastfeeding.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The CDC Guide to Breastfeeding Interventions." (November 10, 2013) http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/pdf/breastfeeding_interventions.pdf
- Centers for Disease Control. "Breastfeeding Report Card: United States 2013." (November 10, 2013) http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/pdf/2013BreastfeedingReportCard.pdf
- Cohen-Moreira, Emily. Personal interview. November 8, 2013.
- O'Connor, Anahad. "The Claim: Probiotics Can Soothe a Colicky Baby." The New York Times. February 14, 2011. (November 10, 2013) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/health/15really.html?ref=health
- Office on Women's Health. "Your baby's first hours of life." (November 10, 2013) http://womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/childbirth-beyond/baby-first-hours.cfm
- Rosen, IM, Krueger, MV, Carney, LM, Graham, JA. "Prenatal breastfeeding education and breastfeeding outcomes." American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing. September 2008. (November 10, 2013) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18758336
- Shute, Nancy. "To Succeed At Breast-Feeding, Most New Moms Could Use Help." NPR. September 23, 2013. (November 10, 2013) http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/09/23/225349120/to-succeed-at-breast-feeding-most-new-moms-could-use-help
- Walker, Marsha. "Breastfeeding and Engorgement." La Leche League International. (November 10, 2013) http://www.llli.org/ba/nov00.html
- World Health Organization. "Exclusive breastfeeding." (November 10, 2013) http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/exclusive_breastfeeding/en/
- World Health Organization. "Infant and young child feeding." September 2013. (November 10, 2013) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs342/en/index.html