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How to start breastfeeding

The first time you hold your newborn in the delivery room is a great time to start breastfeeding. At the beginning, your body will produce small amounts of a special milk called colostrum that will help protect your baby from infection. (Your baby's tummy is very tiny, so she only needs these small amounts to fill up. As her tummy grows, your milk will change and you'll produce more of it.)

Turn your baby's whole body toward you, chest to chest. Touch her upper lip with your nipple, and, when she opens her mouth wide, pull her onto your breast, holding your breast for support. Her mouth should cover not just the nipple but as much of the areola (the darker part surrounding it) as possible.

Don't panic if your newborn seems to have trouble finding or staying on your nipple. Breastfeeding requires patience and lots of practice. Don't hesitate to ask a nurse to show you what to do, and request visits from a lactation consultant while you're in the hospital (many hospitals have them on staff).

If you have a premature baby, you may not be able to nurse right away, but you should start pumping your milk. Your baby will receive this milk through a tube or a bottle until she's strong enough to nurse.

See how to position your baby's mouth on your breast so you can nurse comfortably and prevent nipple pain, and learn the signs of a good, deep latch. See all videos
Once you get started, remember that nursing shouldn't be painful. Pay attention to how your breasts feel when your baby latches on. Her mouth should cover a big part of the areola below the nipple, and your nipple should be far back in your baby's mouth.

If latch-on hurts, break the suction (by inserting your little finger between your baby's gums and your breast) and try again. Once your baby latches on properly, she'll do the rest.

How often you should nurse

Frequently. The more you nurse, the more milk you'll produce. Nursing eight to 12 times every 24 hours is pretty much on target.

According to guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), rather than nursing according to a rigid schedule, you should nurse your newborn whenever she shows early signs of hunger, such as increased alertness or activity, mouthing, or rooting around for your nipple. Crying is a late sign of hunger – ideally, you should start feeding your baby before she starts crying.

During the first few days, you may have to gently wake your baby to begin nursing, and she may fall asleep again mid-feeding. (To keep her awake during feedings, you may want to unswaddle her or remove a layer of clothing.) To make sure your baby's eating often enough, wake her up if it's been four hours since your last nursing session.

How to get comfortable

Since feedings can take up to 40 minutes, especially in the newborn months, pick a cozy spot for nursing. Hold your baby in a position that won't leave your arms and back sore. It works well to support the back of your baby's head with your hand, but the position you choose really depends on what's comfortable for you.

If you're sitting, a nursing pillow can be a big help in supporting your baby. Many moms also find a footstool helps them get comfy. Whether you're sitting or lying down, don't start the feeding until you and your baby are comfortable because you'll be in that position for a while.

What you should eat

A normal healthy diet is all you need while you're nursing. Although you can produce milk for your baby even if your nutrition isn't up to par, eating a well-balanced diet will ensure that the quantity and quality of your milk is all it can be and will help you feel your best. Follow your hunger rather than counting calories, and drink fluids throughout the day to stay well hydrated.

Many moms feel extra hungry while breastfeeding, which makes sense – your body is working around the clock to make breast milk for your baby. Eating small meals with healthy snacks in between (the way you may have done during pregnancy) is a good way to keep your hunger in check and your energy level high. (As a general guideline, most women who are breastfeeding will need about 200 to 500 calories more than moms who aren't.)

Don't overdo your caffeine consumption, because you'll pass the caffeine along to your baby in your breast milk and it can accumulate in her system. (Experts recommend limiting your intake to no more than 300 mg per day, about the amount you'd get in a 12-ounce cup of coffee).

You'll also want to limit drinking alcohol while you're breastfeeding, because it also enters your breast milk.

Most nursing babies don't mind if Mom indulges in spicy foods. In fact, some experts believe that babies enjoy some variety. No foods are problematic for all babies, so there's no need to restrict what you eat right away. But if your baby seems more gassy or irritable every time you eat a particular food (dairy products, for example), try eliminating the suspect food for a while to see if she's better off without them in her breast milk.

Problems you may encounter

Some women adjust to breastfeeding easily, encountering no major physical or emotional hurdles. But many new moms find it hard to learn. If you're feeling discouraged, you're not the only one.

It's normal to feel overwhelmed by your baby's constant demands and exhausted from lack of sleep. And you may have questions: Is my baby getting enough milk? Should I have sore nipples? How long should my baby nurse? Should I wake her if she falls asleep nursing?

Although women have nursed their babies for centuries, breastfeeding doesn't always come easily. Many women face difficulties early on. Some of the most common breastfeeding problems you may encounter in the first six weeks include:

  • engorgement (breasts that are excessively full and uncomfortable)
  • sore nipples
  • mastitis (a breast infection)

Don't suffer in silence. Call your healthcare provider or a lactation consultant if you're suffering from any of the above, if you're in pain, or if physical discomfort is getting in the way of nursing.