A few months ago I became a breastfeeding peer supporter. The course was fascinating for many reasons, it provided facts and information I didn’t previously know, and it put into clear words things that I had just taken for granted.
One thing that was clear, and that is blatantly clear nationwide given the figures of mothers who breastfeed their babies to 6 months and beyond, is that support is scarce. Not only in terms of post-natal support, but ante-natally there doesn’t seem to be much information on what to expect from breastfeeding. This could be one of the reasons why many mums give up before the recommended time, they simply weren’t prepared for what breastfeeding a baby is really like. I knew I wanted to breastfeed my babies, I was breastfed and so was my sister, my mum used to be a midwife, yet I wasn’t aware of the reality of breastfeeding a newborn baby.
So here are a few facts about breastfeeding a newborn:
Babies feed A LOT. Their stomachs are teeny tiny, so it only takes a little bit of milk to fill them, but because breast milk is so easily digested, it takes a short time for the stomach to be empty again. This means that babies can feed several times an hour. Formula is harder for babies to digest, and therefore it takes longer to leave the stomach. The formula fed baby will therefore stay fuller longer than the breastfed baby, and as bottle-feeding is so prevalent in western society, seeing a baby feed two or three times in an hour, or once every hour, as so many breastfed babies do, seems abnormal. It’s not abnormal. Breastfed babies normally feed 8 – 12 times in 24 hours, sometimes more.
A very useful exercise we did during the peer supporter course was to write down everything we had eaten or drunk on a normal day – every single meal, every cup of tea, every sneaky biscuit. Our lists ranged from around 12 to 18 items. So if it is normal for us as adults to be eating or drinking this many times in a day, why should it be any different for a baby?
Your boobs grow to a ridiculous size on day 3-4 as your milk comes in. The milk can also bring with it inexplicable tears and over-whelming emotions, as well as engorgement. Learning how to hand express, or expressing with a pump, is a good idea to help stop breast engorgement. Stocking up on tissues and keeping visitors away for the day should help with the tears.
Babies do not know what is “day” and what is “night”. They only know they need milk and comfort. It is quite normal for babies to become fussier in the evenings and they may need longer or more frequent feeds. During the night, they will continue to feed in the same manner as they have in the day, needing milk every 1 or 2 hours. This doesn’t mean that the breast milk isn’t fulfilling them enough, or that you’re not producing enough milk, it just means that a newborn doesn’t yet realise that night time is for sleeping.
Sticking with that theme, the frequency of breastfeeds does not indicate a problem with supply or satisfaction. Cluster feeding is normal, particularly during growth spurts, and cluster feeding at night will increase your supply enough to provide your baby with the exact amount of milk he needs.
Prolactin levels are higher at night, and it is prolactin that stimulates the production of breastmilk. So night feeds are very important, particularly in the early weeks as the issue of supply and demand is crucial to maintaining a good supply of milk. It does seem cruel that prolactin levels are higher at night, but prolactin itself has sleep-inducing qualities, so if you can master feeding while side-lying, it is very possible to sleep while feeding. (Always follow co-sleeping guidelines.)
Breastfeeding makes you thirsty. Always have a large cold drink to hand when feeding your baby. You don’t need to monitor how much you’re drinking, you don’t need any more fluids than your thirst dictates.
Breastfeeding makes you hungry. You will have days when you could just eat and eat and eat. And eat. But that’s fine as you’re burning 500-800 calories a day, so a few extra snacks won’t hurt.
In our society where formula feeding is seen as the norm, many mums will tell you that they couldn’t produce enough milk for their baby, or their milk just wasn’t satisfying enough. There is a very small percentage of women who medically can’t produce enough milk; poor positioning, poor latch, or timed feeds can all lead to a decrease in milk supply, all of which could be sorted and corrected with the right support and advice. In addition, if a mum feels her supply is decreasing, due to one of these factors, or feels her milk isn’t enough for her baby, she is likely to ‘top-up’ the baby with a formula feed. This means that baby misses one or two breastfeeds, the breast thinks that baby doesn’t need as much milk and so the supply decreases, mum notices a drop in supply and adds another ‘top-up’ formula feed, and so the cycle goes on until the baby is solely formula fed. Ensuring baby is positioned and attached to the breast correctly, and that baby is feeding for as long as he needs to, is hugely important in keeping the milk supply at the level baby needs.
Breastfeeding is beautiful! It is what breasts were made for. Be confident in your body and in your baby that you both know what you’re doing, relax, and enjoy it. Babies aren’t babies for long, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll miss the closeness that breastfeeding brings when it’s gone.
Here are some helpful online resources for breastfeeding advice and support:
The Lactivist (not really for advice, but great for promoting breastfeeding, and a favourite site of mine!)
Natural Mamas (not just for advice on breastfeeding, but also for babywearing, co-sleeping and natural parenting)
There are also several groups on Facebook that offer excellent peer support:
For help and support in your area, contact your midwife or health visitor, the NCT or La Leche League.