If you've decided to breastfeed, there are a number of things you can do to help establish breastfeeding as quickly as possible and reduce the likelihood of encountering problems in those early weeks with your baby.
When Should I Start?
First of all, start to feed your baby as close to the baby's birth as you can. Although your baby isn't necessarily hungry, their instinct to feed straight after birth is very strong, the first feed is important because it creates a blueprint in his memory of how to latch on correctly. If you try and breastfeed while you're still in the delivery room you are more likely to have the help of a midwife who can guide you and give you a bit of assistance. You may well be feeling tired and groggy, but there is usually time to try a breastfeed while in the delivery room and the skin to skin contact can be of great comfort to both mother and baby. As breastfeeding helps your uterus to contract, doing this straight after birth will also aid a speedier delivery of the placenta.
A further benefit is that your baby is quite alert in first hour or two after birth. Over the next two or three days he or she is likely to become more placid - the after effects of a trip through the birth canal! This will mean that your baby's eating and sleeping patterns will be irregular and so it may be harder to establish breastfeeding the longer you wait.
What Will My Baby Be Drinking?
For the first two or three days after birth you'll produce colostrum - the nutrient-packed immunity-boosting super food for newborns. It's thick and yellow, more like honey than milk and it's packed full of protein. During this time your milk is almost pure colostrum. You'll produce only a little until your milk comes in a few days later, but this is all your baby needs in the first few days.
How Do I Produce Milk?
Once your baby is born, your brain secretes prolactin, a hormone that initiates and maintains milk production. Prolactin and the hormone oxytocin are released each time your baby sucks on your breast. As your baby sucks, a signal is sent to your body to tell it to produce more milk. In those first few days, you should expect to feed little and often, allowing your baby to feed whenever they need to (and more often if they are too sleepy to wake for regular feeds) will stimulate your milk production and set you up for the weeks and months ahead.
To continue successfully with breastfeeding you need to ensure that you maintain a good supply of milk. Correct positioning and correct latch-on are vital to success here. If the baby is not positioned right and correctly latched on, the signal needed for your body to produce milk is not sent and the hormones needed for breastfeeding are not released. Consequently no milk will be discharged, and this spirals into an ever diminishing milk supply.
How Do I Feed?
To get a good position, nestle your baby comfortably in the crook of your arm, pretty much level with your breast, so that his head is elevated slightly, his body is in a straight line, and he doesn't have to strain his neck in order to reach your breast. Take care not to tilt him so that his head is lower than his body as this will make it difficult for him to swallow. He should be turned slightly towards you with his face onto your nipple. A good way to remember is to think 'tummy to tummy, nose to nipple'. If you find this position uncomfortable for any reason, there are other positions which you can try. A breastfeeding councillor can advise you.
For a proper latch on, your baby's lips should be flanged around the nipple and areola. His nose and chin should touch your breast.
When you are feeding, you may feel a tingling or rushing feeling in your breasts. This sensation is known as the let down and is felt as milk flows from the breast. Some mums have a fast let down, which means that their milk flow is quite rapid. Their babies sometimes tend to sputter and choke in the first few minutes of a feed. To stop fast let down, put a finger on the nipple, as if you're stopping a flow of blood from a cut. Don't worry if you can't feel your let down, as sensitivity varies from woman to woman. When you have a slow let down, your baby might appear frustrated and may pop on and off the breast to try to stimulate the flow. Slow let down may be a sign of tension; try to relax more or if that doesn't work, use a breast pump until you see milk flow and then put your baby to the breast. Some women find that they can encourage their milk let down by focusing on it, imagining the milk being released from their breasts.
The most important thing to remember is to be as comfortable and relaxed as possible when feeding with your baby. It is the perfect opportunity for you to put your feet up for a while and enjoy some lovely bonding time and cuddles with them. It can be thirsty work though, so try to make sure that you have a drink in reaching distance when you settle down to feed, unless you have someone around who can make you drinks on order!