By Angela Cabotaje
While Washington’s breastfeeding rates are well above the national average — 92.4 percent of babies have been breastfed compared to 83.2 percent — that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Many first-time moms have never seen a woman breastfeed before, and that lack of familiarity, plus a variety of other factors, often result in unexpected baby-feeding difficulties.
“I think most women are really underprepared for the challenges that breastfeeding can bring for them and for their babies,” says Kelsey Stevens, a board-certified lactation consultant at Northwest Hospital & Medical Center.
But it’s not all spilled milk. Studies show that breastfeeding has long-term health benefits for babies and their moms, and it’s a one-of-a-kind bonding experience that only you can share with your little one.
“In Seattle, just as we tend to have a lot of moms wanting natural births, we see a majority of people have the desire to breastfeed,” says Mary Lou Kopas, chief of midwifery at the Midwives Clinic and Childbirth Center at Northwest Hospital.
To help you better prepare for when your little one arrives, Stevens and Kopas share their top breastfeeding takeaways:
Breastfeeding starts right away
The moments immediately after baby is born is when you can start to establish a solid breastfeeding relationship.
“Traditionally in hospitals, they used to separate mom and baby to take measurements,” Kopas says. “Nowadays, if the baby’s not in distress, we try not to intervene. Newborns have a lot of instincts to find the breast if we get out of their way.”
What Kopas is describing is something called baby-led latching, where newborns instinctually root around for the nipple. Letting this first feeding happen naturally helps ensure a positive association with breastfeeding for both baby and mom. If you’re not able to go the baby-led latching route, though, don’t worry. You can still have a good breastfeeding relationship, even if you wait a few extra hours.
A good latch goes a long way
In breastfeeding terms, a good latch is when baby’s mouth attaches to the breast in the correct position, allowing your little one to effectively suck and draw out milk.
“Baby’s chin should be buried into the breast and the lips should be flared with a seal over the breast,” Stevens says. “Baby’s mouth should be wide.”
Positioning the lips and mouth this way lets your baby form a seal, extend the tongue and draw your nipple and areola deep for efficient nursing. If that sounds like a whole lot to visualize, that’s because it is. Getting a proper latch can take a ton of practice for you and your baby.
You can tell if you have a poor latch if your baby comes off the breast quickly or if nursing is painful. If it hurts to breastfeed, ask a lactation consultant to check your baby’s latch. Many hospitals like Northwest also offer breastfeeding support groups for moms to practice with guidance.
Anatomy issues may complicate things
Inverted or flat nipples, as well as underdeveloped breasts, can make getting a good latch more difficult.
“There are a few different techniques you can try, like rolling or pumping to stimulate your nipples to draw them out,” Kopas says.
Some babies are also born tongue-tied, a breastfeeding buzzword that means the flap of skin (called a frenulum) connecting the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is too short. This can hinder your baby’s ability to extend the tongue and suck effectively. If the tongue-tie is severe, a doctor or lactation consultant may suggest cutting the frenulum so that baby can get a better latch.
Your milk supply is about demand
Many new moms are surprised that their breasts don’t produce tons of breastmilk right away. In reality, it can take anywhere from three to five days for your breasts to ramp up production.
Why? It’s all about supply and demand. When your baby first starts to nurse, that stimulation gives your breasts the message to start producing milk. The more you breastfeed or pump, the more milk you’ll make.
What about those herbs, supplements and specialty lactation foods that claim to increase your milk supply?
“There’s a lack of clear evidence that they work,” Stevens says. “The best thing you can do to increase your milk supply is to work on getting baby feeding well and adding in pumping or hand expressing afterward, if needed.”
Remember to be kind to yourself
Despite all your best efforts, breastfeeding may not go as you had hoped or planned. And that’s perfectly fine.
“We recognize that babies are still able to thrive from formula or expressed breastmilk,” Stevens says.
The thing is, you might not expect the onslaught of emotions and guilt that come when your breastfeeding plans go awry. It’s important to be kind to yourself and remember that you’re doing the very best you can for your child.
“You’re a good mom if you can keep your baby fed,” Stevens says. “Breastfeeding is a huge important factor, but it’s not the only thing. There are so many things that you can do that impact your child.”
About the Author
Angela Cabotaje is a writer for Right as Rain, a digital publication which provides health and wellness news, tips and information, brought to you by the experts at UW Medicine.