5 Things New Mothers Must Know About Breastfeeding

As you start on this new journey, here are some facts you must know about breastfeeding and breast milk.

By Leena Ghosh

5 Things New Mothers Must Know About Breastfeeding

The World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year in the first week of August to make new mothers aware of the benefits of breastfeeding. The theme of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week is ‘Breastfeeding: Foundation for Life’. If you have just started on the exciting journey of motherhood, here are some facts you must know about breastfeeding.

Breast milk is the most important source of nutrition for a newborn. Mother’s milk helps a baby thrive by providing him with all the nutrition he needs. In fact, based on research and evidence collected over the years, the World Health Organisation and the UNICEF recommends the following for new mothers:

  • Breastfeeding should be initiated within the first hour of life
  • Infants must be breastfed exclusively for the first few months. This means that the baby must not be given any additional food or drink, including water.
  • Infants should be breastfed on demand—that is, as often as the child wants, irrespective of the time of the day
  • Do not give bottle feeds or use teats or pacifiers to soothe the baby

What every new mother should know about breastfeeding

1. What you eat is what your baby gets

To ensure that your baby gets adequate nutrition, make sure that you eat healthy. If you introduce anything new to your diet, do it in moderation as this can change the composition and flavour of your breast milk. You should have three main meals, three healthy snacks and drink three litres of water a day.

The main meals would be breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the snacks can include a sandwich, a bowl of soup, yogurt, fruits or nuts. Don’t avoid consuming fats as your baby needs it for nourishment. Make sure the food you eat is high in calories.

"The breast milk composition changes according to the food a mother takes. For example foods like garlic and fenugreek increase the breast milk supply," says Dr Madhuri Prabhu, a neonatal pediatrician.

2. It takes time for your body to start producing milk

One primary concern of new mothers is that they are not producing milk, or enough of it, to nurture their little one. This shouldn't be a cause for worry, as it takes three to five days for new mothers to start producing breast milk. And, for some women, it may even take longer. At first, your breasts will produce a thick, sticky liquid called the colostrum, which is high in nutrition and essential for the baby. However, colostrum is  only produced in small quantities. To stimulate the flow of breast milk, you can also make your baby lie down on your breast.

"The time it takes the body to produce milk depends on the type of delivery the mother has. In case it’s a normal delivery the hormonal changes that the mother goes through during the birth initiates the milk production. We encourage the babies to be put on the breast soon after he is born or as soon as possible. In c-sections, however, it takes a while for the milk producing hormone to get activated and it can take a couple of days for the mother to start producing milk. But, after the mother is stable, we encourage babies to be put on the mother’s chest and suckle. This stimulates the breast. Once the body understands that the demand is there, the supply comes through" says Dr Madhuri.

3. A ‘good latch’ is important

As soon as your baby arrives, you will hear about the importance of ensuring that your baby 'latches on' correctly. However, what most mothers don’t know is that babies don’t latch on to the nipple but to the areola, the part around the nipple. The milk ducts are located under the areola and the baby’s act of sucking helps the milk flow through the nipple. 

"It’s true that most of the areola should be inside the baby’s mouth, but this also depends on the mother. Some women have smaller areola and others have bigger. To help the baby latch to the breast properly, the baby should be turned entirely toward the mother. That is, the baby’s tummy should be in line with the mother’s tummy. The mom should ensure that the baby’s mouth is wide open before she takes the breast, because she should not be suckling on the nipple. The most important point to note is that the mother should not be experiencing any pain while breastfeeding, except when she has sore breasts. Breastfeeding hurts if the baby does not have a good latch," says Dr Madhuri.

According to the article, ‘Things that can affect your milk supply’, published on nhs.uk, here are some signs that your baby is latching on correctly:

  • Your baby has a mouthful of your breast 
  • Feeding your baby doesn’t cause you discomfort, except for the initial few minutes when the flow is strong
  • Your baby pauses during the feed to swallow the milk
  • Your baby detaches herself once she feels full

4. Your milk supply will increase depending on how frequently you feed

The mechanism is simple: the more you feed your baby, the more milk your body produces to satiate your child’s hunger. This fact is supported by a study ‘Infant and Young Child Feeding: Model Chapter for Textbooks for Medical Students and Allied Health Professionals’ published in 2009 by the World Health Organization. The study explains, ‘There are two hormones that directly affect breastfeeding: prolactin and oxytocin. When a baby suckles, the level of prolactin in the blood increases, and stimulates production of milk. The prolactin level is highest about 30 minutes after the beginning of the feed, so its most important effect is to make milk for the next feed. During the first few weeks, the more a baby suckles and stimulates the nipple, the more prolactin is produced, and the more milk is produced’. So, if a mother stops breastfeeding for some reason, the milk supply dries up on its own. Hence, most experts recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.

5. Newborns don’t feed at fixed intervals

The idea of a fixed feeding schedule could be gratifying to a new mom. But, newborns don't follow schedules. Ideally, a newborn feeds anywhere between 8 to 12 times a day, not necessarily at fixed intervals. How much your baby feeds in one session depends on various factors, including his birth weight. An ideal breastfeeding session can last anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes. Follow your baby’s signals and feed him as and when required. An important point to remember is that you can't overfeed a breastfed baby.

"For the first few weeks, babies should feed at an interval of two to two-and-a-half hours. After that, they can go on demand feed. Most mothers complain that their babies feed almost constantly during the night and rest more during the day. This is because a feeding hormone gets activated in the night. This is nature’s way of increasing the breast milk supply.

Also, babies feed more erratically when they go through a growth spurt. They feed more and then take longer breaks. Mothers should not worry about it as the proof of the pudding lies in how much weight the baby gains," explains Dr Madhuri.

Now that you know a few important points about breastfeeding, here are some interesting facts about breast milk as well:

Facts about breast milk

  • Breast milk has live healthy bacteria and antibodies that boost your child’s immunity and improve her gut health.
  • The fat content in breast milk changes during a feeding session. At first, the milk is more ‘watery’ but as your baby keeps suckling, the ‘let down’ reflex is activated. As a result, the milk that comes out is thicker and has higher nutritional value.
  • Nighttime breast milk is different from the one produced during daytime. During evenings, the breast milk is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that induces sleep. Tryptophan also helps in the development of serotonin, a feel-good hormone that helps in maintaining sleep-wake cycles.
  • What you eat not only influences the composition of your breast milk, but it also changes the flavour of the milk.
  • Breast milk not only contains stem cells but it also helps kill cancer cells. According to a study, 'HAMLET Interacts with Lipid Membranes and Perturbs Their Structure and Integrity' done by Lund University and the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, published in February 2010, breast milk contains a special protein called the HAMLET (Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made LEthal to Tumour cells) that alters the morphology of the cancer cells, which ‘could be an initial step in inducing cell death’.

Motherhood is an exciting journey and every new mother’s experience in unique. But, a common fact is that the best way to bond with your child is through breastfeeding. Ensure that your baby gets the best nutrition possible and consult a lactation expert whenever you hit a hurdle.

Dr Madhuri Prabhu is a consultant neonatal paediatrician with 12 years’ experience.

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