The First Few Weeks of Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding your new baby seems like it should be the simplest thing in the world. Place baby to breast, baby latches and suckles, baby is fed. Simple, right? Well, most of the time, it’s not that easy. Breastfeeding may be simple, in that there are a few essential things that have to be in place for it all to work together. But that does not mean that it is easy. The simplicity of breastfeeding can be broken down into a few necessary parts - a healthy, well-rested, and well-nourished mother; an infant with a strong suckle and a good latch; and adequate time at the breast. As many experienced breastfeeding mothers can attest, there are many ways these things can go awry, and the first few weeks of breastfeeding can be less than idyllic. But there are always things you can do to make those first couple of weeks smoother.
A healthy, well-rested, and well-fed mother is essential during the first couple of weeks of breastfeeding. Many cultures know this, and plan for the mother and new baby to essentially stay in bed for the first month, with relatives and friends taking care of all the other household needs and cooking for the new mother. Unfortunately, most mothers in the United States do not have this kind of care.
This is a good time to ask your friends and family to help. There are excellent meal train planning services online where people can sign up to bring you food without you having to coordinate anything, other than setting up the account. And even that can be done by somebody else! If this isn’t feasible, making and freezing easy-to-reheat meals before you give birth is a great way to plan ahead. Eating enough healthy foods, drinking enough fluids, and focusing on your own well-being is so important.
Set up a few designated nursing places around your home. This can be your bed and a comfy spot in your living room - or wherever you feel comfortable. Stock these places with drinking water, some nourishing snacks, baby wipes and diapers, a few extra blankets, and some extra clothes for baby. And it may be a cliche, but it’s so true - sleep when the baby sleeps! Newborns breastfeed throughout the day and night and haven’t developed anything like a schedule yet. Sleep whenever you can and let somebody else do the laundry.
The Importance of a Good Latch
The next essential piece of breastfeeding in the first weeks is your infant having a strong suckle and a good latch. A strong suckle reflex is one of the inherent things a newborn understands how to do. If your newborn has health considerations that affect her ability to suckle, you may need the help of a lactation consultant or other care provider. The suckle reflex is stimulated by touch in the back part of the infant’s mouth. A strong suckle reflex works together with a good latch. When your baby has a good latch, the end of your nipple will be far back into your baby's mouth, stimulating the baby to suckle.
There are many subtle things that can go into getting a good latch; however, the basics are straightforward. Make sure your baby is positioned with her body facing yours (so that her head is in a straight line with her body - not with her head turned to reach your nipple). If you are holding your baby in a cradle hold, your belly and your babies belly will be facing each other. Bring the baby to your nipple, using pillows or bolsters to prop the baby up if need be. Don’t hunch over or move your breast to where the baby is. Bring the baby to you. Encourage your baby to have a wide, open mouth. If your baby doesn’t do this right away, you can stimulate an open mouth by tickling the babies bottom lip with your nipple. When the baby has a wide open mouth, bring the baby onto your nipple. The baby's lips should be spread open wide, not sucked back into her mouth over her gums. Breastfeeding may hurt for the first couple of weeks, but this discomfort should only last for the first few moments of a breastfeeding session and should go away as your baby continues to nurse. If it continues beyond that, you most likely have a bad latch and need to take the baby off and start over. You can ease this discomfort with nipple salve.
Supply and Demand
Time at the breast is the third item on our list. Milk supply is a cycle of supply and demand. Your baby is telling your body how much milk to make in those first couple weeks. So, the more your baby breastfeeds, the more milk you will make. It’s an easy misconception to fall into that if a baby wants to nurse a lot, or 10 minutes after they last nursed, or even right away, that they aren’t getting enough milk. Infants do not eat the same way adults or children do. Their stomachs are tiny and they digest breastmilk quickly and easily. They also gain much more than nutrition from breastfeeding. Security, safety, comfort - all of these things are vital to your infants well-being and growth. You cannot “spoil” a baby by holding or breastfeeding them too much.
Even knowing all that, it can be shocking how often a newborn wants to nurse. You may have heard that they will eat around every two hours (and this is around the clock - not just during the day) and while this generally may be true, the reality is that most newborns will eat much more frequently than that. It often goes something like this: your baby starts to root around and act like she would like to nurse. You get yourself all set up, get a good latch, your baby starts to feed. Your baby nurses through a letdown, then needs a diaper change. You change the diaper, and settle back in to nurse on the other side. It takes a while to do all this and get back to breastfeeding again. And the cycle repeats. When you look up at the clock you realize you have been working at breastfeeding for over an hour and that most likely, after your baby takes a nap, she will want to feed again soon. It can be a frustrating cycle when you go into it with the idea that your baby is going to nurse quickly and only every couple of hours, at most.
It’s important to be realistic with your expectations. The scenario described above is completely 100% normal. What’s not normal is trying to force a newborn into some kind of feeding schedule. A newborn isn’t physiologically ready to go for very long without feeding and trying to schedule their feedings can lead to low milk supply and a baby that isn’t thriving. Nurse your baby when they want to nurse and for however long they would like. Let go of the idea that you will be able to get anything else done, even though this can be very hard. Love, cuddle, and nurse your baby.
The first few weeks of breastfeeding can be overwhelming, frustrating, exhausting, and wonderfully sweet. Knowing what is normal and preparing yourself and your environment beforehand can help you immeasurably. Taking care of yourself and taking care of your baby are ideally your only jobs at first, and you and your baby deserve that golden time of rest, healing, and connection.