by Olivia DeLong

Breastfeeding is recommended for most newborns by all major health organizations, including the World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). And for good reason: breastfeeding offers a wide range benefits to both you and your newborn. In fact, more than 75 percent of new mothers start out breastfeeding after birth.

Some moms don’t continue—and that’s OK. They may not produce enough milk, some babies have trouble latching and some women just prefer not to. Obviously, there are many other ways to connect with your baby; not to mention, formula is packed with nutrients, too.

But if you are considering breastfeeding, here are some of the most important things to know.

You’ve heard it over and over again—“breast is best.” But why? There are a slew of health benefits:

  • It has the right amount of fat, sugar, water, protein and minerals that your infant needs during crucial growth and development stages. In fact, your body is pretty amazing—your milk will actually change as your baby’s nutritional needs change.
  • Breast milk is easier for your baby to digest.
  • Breast milk contains natural antibodies that help lower your child’s risk of certain conditions, like ear infections, diarrhea, respiratory illnesses and allergies—in addition to other ongoing health problems like asthma and childhood leukemia and type 2 diabetes.
  • Breastfeeding lowers your newborn’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the unexplained death of a newborn that usually occurs during sleep.

And more specifically, the milk your body produces when you’re pregnant and just after birth, called colostrum, is especially beneficial for your infant. The dark yellowish milk is chockful of nutrients and antibodies that protect your baby from infections. Colostrum also helps your infant’s digestive system grow and develop. Three to five days after birth, your milk will progress into mature milk, which is slightly more watery and lighter in color. But don’t be alarmed if you don’t even notice the colostrum in the first few days of latching. “Most moms don’t even see it, and it’s not something they’re always able to express, even with a pump, says lactation nurse Kari Plewa in the Nursing Post Partum department at Grand Strand Medical Center.

In addition to all of the major health benefits breastfeeding has for your baby, you’ll reap some benefits, too. Breastfeeding encourages the release of oxytocin, the hormone that controls uterine contractions, which can help your uterus recover and get back to its normal size faster.

Breastfeeding may also help you lose the pregnancy weight more quickly, and may even reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and certain cancers like breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Many women are able to breastfeed without any problems. But others will have some issues, many of which can resolve themselves. As you can imagine, your body needs to adjust to many changes—including one that requires milk production. Here are some of the issues you and your newborn may need to work through with a lactation nurse from your hospital or your OBGYN:

  • Sore nipples
  • Low milk supply
  • Oversupply of milk
  • Plugged milk duct
  • Mastitis, breast infection
  • Fungal issues like yeast infections or thrush
  • "Nursing strike," when your newborn suddenly starts refusing the breast

If you have twins or multiples, are breastfeeding another child while you’re pregnant or your newborn is premature or has another health condition like jaundice, you may have some other challenges to work through at the beginning. Your OBGYN or lactation nurse can help you determine what’s right for you and your baby, such as when you should start breastfeeding and how.

One of the beauties of breastfeeding is that you can do it anytime and just about anywhere—and it does save money on formula.

The convenience can come in handy when your newborn is hungry and you’re out to dinner or running errands. Your milk is always the right temperature, which helps keep your baby’s body temperature stable, too.

For working moms, expressing milk and storing it in bottles in the fridge helps you keep your milk supply steady, and allows your baby to be fed with breast milk even when you’re not there.

Breastfeeding can help you become closer—both physically and emotionally—to your baby. In general, physical contact (whether you breastfeed or not) can comfort your newborn and help them feel safe and warm, says Plewa.

But that’s not all: skin-to-skin contact also increases milk supply, which is a good thing.

Every woman (and every baby!) is different, so a timeline that works for one mother may not work for another. Not only that, but your baby may start to wean earlier than you planned, so may have to adjust your plan.

In general, and if you are able, exclusive breastfeeding (meaning only breast milk) is recommended for at least six months, then after that, new foods can be introduced in addition to breast milk until your baby reaches 12 months. After that, it’s up to you—continue breastfeeding until it feels right to stop.

If going back to work is a concern for you or you’re just not sure how long you want to breastfeed, Plewa’s motto is this: “Set short-term goals and make them week to week. Any amount of time you are able to breastfeed is beneficial for you and your baby and before you know it 6 months will have flown by.”

She encourages moms that any amount of time they breastfeed is awesome. If it’s a couple weeks, that’s better for baby than none at all.

Your baby is getting her nutrients from your breast milk, so it makes sense that what you eat can affect your baby’s health. It’s important that you take in enough calories—your body will need about 450 to 500 calories just to make milk for your baby. If are within normal weight, you’ll want to shoot to get about 2,500 calories per day. If you are over or underweight, a nutritionist can help you work through a calorie plan that’s right for you. You may find you’re hungrier and thirstier when you’re breastfeeding, too, says Plewa. Listening to your body is key.

Talk to your OBGYN about whether or not you should continue to take your prenatal vitamins while breastfeeding. And when it comes to specific foods, make sure to steer clear of any fish with mercury, like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish, and keep your albacore tuna consumption to under 6 ounces per week. Stick to less than 200 milligrams of caffeine per day, or about one 12-ounce cup of coffee; for a few days after birth, a little less than that.

Pregnancy and childbirth are very joyous times in your life, but remember that you’re going to experience many emotional and physical changes. If you have trouble breastfeeding, that’s totally normal. For example, your baby may have trouble latching on, or become frustrated if the colostrum doesn’t come in right away.

Many hospitals provide a breastfeeding preparation course in the months leading up to birth. Typically, you’d take the course during your second or third trimester. Be sure to ask your OBGYN if this is available, or contact the hospital where you’re giving birth. Once you’ve delivered your baby, a lactation nurse at the hospital can be an amazing resource to help you and your baby get started and on a schedule—they may offer home or outpatient visits. At some hospitals, you can even call the nurse after you’ve returned home. The La Leche League International is another rich source of information and help. Through this nonprofit group you can also find a community of women who have all breastfed their babies, and are trained to provide answers to questions along with emotional support.

When you start to question yourself or feel overwhelmed, says Plewa, talk to your pediatrician or lactation nurse. “Even talking through your questions and concerns over the phone can help you feel better,” says Plewa.

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