Breastfeeding, while natural and normal to all mammals, can occasionally be a bit of a mystery to those who haven't looked into human lactation and the science behind it, or spend a lifetime growing up among nursing mothers and their babies. Counselors from the Australian Breastfeeding Association recently put together their top seven facts mothers should know to make breastfeeding easier. They stress the following facts for nursing moms:
1) For babies, breastfeeding is an instinct. Provided birth (during and after) is not interrupted or messed with (induction, drugs, surgery, pain) babies are born with the instinct to breastfeed, and they nurse easily when given the opportunity to follow their primal instincts.
2) For mothers, breastfeeding is a learned skill. It is normal to need plenty of help and for it to take a few weeks to feel confident breastfeeding. This is especially true if a mother has not grown up in a culture that values and empowers nursing mothers - one where she grew up witnessing a wide variety of nursing babies and their mothers. This nipple latch technique has helped many moms who need some extra skills to help baby latch properly (so that nursing is comfortable). Visiting with a skilled lactation consultant in person is also extremely valuable in perfecting latch early on in one's breastfeeding career.
3) Skin-to-skin contact helps babies learn to breastfeed more easily and supports the nursing relationship (and milk supply) hormonally. When a baby of any age is held skin-to-skin against his mother's chest he is more able to follow his instincts and attach well to the breast. This skin-to-skin contact influences mother's milk to let down, and for her supply to become hearty.
4) The cues that a baby is hungry include:
Sucking on her fingers
Sucking on his fist
Turning her head from side to side
Opening and closing her mouth (fishy lips)
Smacking his lips
Poking out her tongue
Crying is the last sign of late (advanced) hunger and babies attach to the breast more easily before they reach this desperate, hungry, crying stage. Imagine you are hungry but cannot do anything to get yourself the food you need... first, you ask for it by the means of communication you have. If your repeated requests are ignored, and you become famished, you eventually cry out in anguish, begging someone to pay attention to your need to be fed. Babies' stomachs are very tiny (especially in the first months of life) and while they fill up quickly, they also empty very quickly and baby will be genuinely hungry again soon. Learning your baby's cues and attending to them right away will increase breastfeeding success (and a happy, content baby).
5) Gently massaging the breast towards the nipple while the baby is feeding can increase how much milk the baby gets and help a sleepy baby get more milk. Running a finger or thumb lightly across the baby's chin or cheek will encourage the baby to take another gulp and consume more without falling asleep.
6) Every mother's breastmilk storage capacity is different and this can affect how often a baby breastfeeds or whether a baby will solely nurse on one side at a time, or take both breasts at each nursing session. A mother with a smaller storage capacity may find her baby breastfeeds more often and this is normal for her and her baby - it is not a sign that she doesn't make enough milk. Another mother may find that she has a large storage capacity and her baby nurses less often and takes in more at one time - this is normal for her and her baby. All mothers can increase milk supply by fully emptying the breasts more often. Adjustments in milk supply are easily made in the first 30 days. After that time, it becomes much more difficult, so during the first month post-birth it is essential to nurse on cue and pump extra if you wish to stock up a frozen supply for down the road (or plan to return to work).
7) Emptying the breast is what sends the message to a mother's body to make more milk, so the more often a baby feeds (or the more often the mother pumps) the more milk will be made. It is a matter of basic supply and demand. The body makes more when it is told that it needs more (through frequent use and being emptied). If supplements are used (formula or other solid foods) then nursing/pumping decreases, telling the body that not as much milk is needed - and supply drops. This is the reason supplementing (when a mother doesn't think she has enough milk) is counterproductive and actually leads to a drop in milk supply - the very thing she may have been worried about to begin with. If a mother is pumping, she should strive to fully empty the breasts (in the early months of breastfeeding or anytime she wishes to increase supply). This means to pump for 3 minutes after the very last drop of milk comes out, or for 25 minutes - whichever comes first.
For additional information on milk supply see resources at the bottom of this article: Lactation Cookies: Increasing Milk Supply
For helpful information on breastfeeding, see books, websites, and articles for nursing moms at Breastfeeding Resources