If you’re a first-time mom, you may not know what to expect when breastfeeding. Don’t worry – we’ll walk you through it and help you understand how lifestyle choices can affect your breast milk.
Even if this isn’t your first rodeo, there’s always something to learn about breastfeeding.
Table of Contents
- How to start nursing
- Nursing positions
- Dealing with sore and cracked nipples
- Signs of infection
- Lifestyle choices and breastfeeding
- Does your breast milk change when you’re sick?
- 10 Things you didn’t know about breastfeeding
How to start nursing
Your lactation specialist or midwife will show you the proper way to nurse your baby, but you may want to know what to expect when you go in for your first feeding.
First, wash your hands before each feeding session. Your baby’s immune system isn’t fully developed, so she’s more prone to develop an infection or get sick. Keeping your hands clean will help minimize the risk of infection.
- With your free hand, place your thumb on top of your breast and your other fingers below it.
- Bring your baby’s lips up your nipple. Her mouth should open wide.
- Place the nipple in your baby’s mouth, and pull your little one close to you.
Check your baby’s lips to see if they’re pouting out and covering most of your areola. Her lips should not be pulled in over her gums. If she’s pouting, she’s latched on properly.
When feeding, your baby should make faint swalloing noises.
What’s the “let-down” reflex?
You may have heard your midwife or lactation specialist talk about the “let down.” The let-down reflex occurs when your milk is ready to start flowing. You may feel a tingling sensation in your breast when this happens.
The “let-down” sensation may also occur if your baby is overdue for a feeding, you think about your baby, or you hear your little one cry.
Sometimes, the let-down can be pretty forceful – to the point where it causes your baby to start coughing. If the let-down becomes a problem for your baby, it may be helpful to express some milk before you start feeding to ease the flow.
Many new moms struggle to find a nursing position that’s comfortable for both them and their babies. The good news? You don’t have to feed your baby in the classic cradling position.
Here are a few positions to try:
1. The football
The football position is popular with a lot of moms, and that’s because it takes a lot of pressure off your arms.
- Tuck your baby under your arm (just like a football).
- Make sure her head is resting on your hand and that your forearm is supporting her body.
Placing a nursing pillow under your baby can help make the position even more comfortable.
The football position may be the better option if you’ve just had a cesarean section and your tummy is still tender.
2. Side feeding
If you’re tired or recovering from a cesarean section, the side feeding position may be a great choice for you.
In this position, you lay on your side with your baby facing you. The bed may provide all the support your baby needs, or you can prop your little one up on a nursing pillow if necessary.
The cradle position is the most common feeding position.
When cradling, your baby’s head should be in the crook of your arm for support, and your arm and hand support your baby’s bottom and back. In this position, your breast should be right in your baby’s face, and she should be lying on her side.
Dealing with sore and cracked nipples
Many moms experience sore or cracked nipples at some point while breastfeeding. Don’t worry – it’s normal.
Most of the time, moms get cracked or sore nipples when their babies aren’t latching on properly. This can happen for a number of reasons. You and your baby may still be trying to figure this whole breastfeeding thing out, or there may be an anatomical issue that’s keeping your baby from latching on.
Preventing sore or cracked nipples
The best way to prevent sore or cracked nipples while breastfeeding is to address the root cause of the problem.
If your baby isn’t latching on properly, start over.
- Take your baby away from your breast.
- Release the suction by placing your finger between your baby’s gums in the corner of her mouth.
- Try again.
Suckling should not hurt, so if it does, your baby’s mouth may not be in the right position.
Here are a few other tips to help prevent sore or cracked nipples:
- Let the milk dry on your nipples in between feedings.
- Switch nursing positions if you’re feeling discomfort.
- Give your baby less-sore breast first. Her suckling may be less vigorous after the first few minutes of feeding.
- Keep your nipples clean, but avoid using lotions or soap as they can dry out your skin.
- Breastfeed often to prevent engorgement.
Signs of infection
Believe it or not, your breasts can become infected – and they’re more likely to get infected when you’re breastfeeding. This condition is called mastitis.
An infection can occur when bacteria from your baby’s mouth enters one of your milk ducts or a crack in your nipple. They’re most common in the first three months after delivery, but they can also occur in women who aren’t nursing.
About 1-3% of moms develop mastitis while breastfeeding, so it’s not a common occurrence or something to worry about.
Still, it’s important to know the signs of an infection and be on the lookout for them while you nurse. Signs and symptoms of a breast infection include:
- Breast engorgement
- Swelling and tenderness
- Fever and chills
- Body aches
- Pus coming out of the nipple
Get medical attention as soon as possible if you suspect you might have an infection, especially if you’re breastfeeding.
Lifestyle choices and breastfeeding
Breast milk has all the nutrients your baby needs to grow healthy and strong – when mom is healthy. But your lifestyle choices can affect the quality of your milk, and in some cases, make it dangerous for your baby to nurse.
Let’s take a closer look at how your lifestyle can affect your breast milk.
1. Does smoking cigarettes affect breast milk?
We’re not going to preach about how you shouldn’t be smoking – especially around your baby – because you already knew that.
But if you can’t stop smoking, you should be breastfeeding. Not at the same time, though.
Studies have shown that breastfeeding helps counteract the negative side effects of cigarette smoke on your baby’s lungs.
Babies who are exposed to cigarette smoke:
- Are at a higher risk of developing asthma, ear infections, pneumonia, sinus infections, bronchitis, croup and eye issues.
- May experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in your baby after nursing (more common when mom is a heavy smoker).
- Have a higher chance of dying from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
- Are at a higher risk of developing respiratory issues.
- Are more likely to develop colic.
Smoking can also affect your milk supply and the quality of your milk.
- Moms who smoke tend to have lower milk supplies.
- Smoking moms usually have lower levels of prolactin, the hormone needed for milk synthesis.
Please, consider quitting or cutting down on how much you smoke. Smoking can be very harmful to your baby’s health (yours, too).
2. Caffeine in breast milk?
Let’s be honest – most of us have a hard time making it through the day without at least one cup of coffee. Sleep deprived moms are even more likely to reach for that cup of caffeine to stay awake and get through the day with some sanity.
But is it safe to drink caffeinated beverages while you’re breastfeeding?
Yes, but in moderation.
If you avoided caffeine during your pregnancy, you may want to hold off on kickstarting your caffeine habit until after your baby is weaned. Babies tend to be more sensitive to caffeine if their mothers avoided it during pregnancy.
Some babies in general are more sensitive to this jitter-inducing substance than others.
Does that mean you have to give up coffee completely? No.
Only small amounts of caffeine make it into your breast milk while your nursing. In fact, doctors give premature babies a higher dose of caffeine when treating breathing problems than what would be found in your breast milk.
There is one study that has linked caffeine intake to lower iron levels in breast milk.
Is your baby sensitive to caffeine?
How can you tell if your baby is sensitive to caffeine? If he’s wide-eyed, alert and extra fussy, he may be sensitive to caffeine.
If you’re consuming high amounts of caffeine and it’s affecting your baby’s energy levels, it may be time to cut back. You may want to slowly wean yourself down to just one cup (or none) per day to avoid withdrawal. And it may take a day or two for the caffeine to leave your baby’s system.
Does caffeine affect your milk supply?
Contrary to what you may have heard, caffeine does not decrease your milk supply. There are no studies that link caffeine intake to lower breast milk supply.
In fact, there is one study (Nehlig & Debry, 1994) that actually links caffeine to increased milk production.
Sources of caffeine
When most people think of caffeine, they think of coffee, but there are other sources, too, including:
- Tea (green and black)
- Energy drinks
- Caffeinated foods and beverages
Check the labels of the foods you’re eating – you might be surprised that some of them have caffeine.
3. Smoking weed while breastfeeding – Is it safe?
With medical marijuana legal in most states and recreational use permitted in a few states, more moms are wondering whether they can smoke weed while breastfeeding.
The answer is: No.
Most medical experts, including those from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, advise moms to avoid using marijuana while breastfeeding.
Part of the problem is that not much research has been done on nursing moms and cannabis use (for obvious ethical reasons). One thing we do know: Babies are more vulnerable to toxins and chemicals than adults. We also know that babies are exposed to the active chemicals in pot, including THC, the psychoactive compound that gets you high.
We know there are cannabinoids in breast milk because doctors find trace amounts of it in the urine of breastfed babies whose mothers smoke pot.
We still don’t know the full extent of the effects of marijuana on breastfeeding babies, but we do know one thing:
- Babies exposed to marijuana can become sedated and may be unable to suckle well.
Doctors are also concerned that marijuana may affect the baby’s development, particularly the brain.
These effects are the same whether you’re smoking, consuming edibles or using oil.
Studies on the effects of marijuana on breast milk and a baby’s development are conflicting. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that marijuana use doesn’t have a negative impact on a child’s development, but studies have conflicting results.
When it comes to your baby’s health, it’s better to be safe than sorry and abstain from using marijuana while you’re breastfeeding.
4. Alcohol and breast milk – Is there a connection?
Doctors advise against drinking alcohol while you’re pregnant, but what about while you’re breastfeeding? It is okay for moms to drink a glass of wine here and there while nursing?
Research shows that the occasional drink or two is not harmful to a nursing baby. Moms should drink no more than one or two beers, or eight ounces of wine.
If you do drink, wait at least two hours to nurse to minimize the concentration of alcohol in your milk.
Experts recommend limiting your alcohol intake to just one or two drinks per week.
Here are some things to know about alcohol and breastfeeding:
- Having two or more drinks may prevent let-down.
- Drinking alcohol does not increase milk production.
- Daily alcohol consumption has been linked to weight gain in infants.
- Daily alcohol consumption has been linked to slower gross motor development.
While research suggests that having a drink here or there isn’t necessarily harmful to babies, doctors still recommend abstaining from drinking until your baby is at least three months old.
Does your breast milk change when you’re sick?
You’ve come down with a cold. Should you stop breast feeding? More importantly, will your milk change when you’re sick?
No and maybe.
Only in very rare cases should moms stop breastfeeding while they’re sick. There are only a few serious illnesses that would require you to stop breastfeeding temporarily or permanently.
HTLV-1 and HIV are the only two infectious diseases that are considered contraindictions to breastfeeding in the developed world.
Even if you have any of the following illnesses, you should still continue breastfeeding:
- Stomach bug
- Sore throat
- Food poisoning
Just be sure to tell your doctor that you’re sick, so he or she can prescribe a medication that’s compatible with breastfeeding (if necessary).
If you have food poisoning, you should be able to continue breastfeeding as long as your symptoms are confined to the gastrointestinal tract.
But as always, talk to your doctor if you’re sick to make sure it’s okay for you to continue breastfeeding.
One important thing to remember here: Your baby was exposed to your illness before you even knew you had it. Also, you can’t transmit your illness to your baby through your breast milk, but your milk does contain antibodies to help prevent your baby from getting sick.
Withholding your breast milk may actually increase the chances of your baby getting sick because she’s not getting the antibodies from your milk.
10 Things you didn’t know about breastfeeding
- Nursing releases oxytocin, which has a calming effect on both you and your baby. You might find yourself dozing off during feedings because of this relaxed effect. Some moms say they feel a sense of euphoria or a high when they breastfeed.
- Babies can’t bite when they’re suckling, so there’s no need to worry about breastfeeding after your baby’s teeth start coming in.
- Breasfeeding helps prevent breast and ovarian cancers in the long-term.
- Breastfeeding can cause uterine cramps because of the hormones released when your baby suckles and your body produces milk (oxytocin and prolactin).
- Hearing your baby cry may trigger the let-down reflex, which may make your breasts leak a little.
- A breast pump can help relieve engorgement, and help you store milk if you’re heading back to work.
- Your breasts may be extra sensitive while you’re breastfeeding.
- Plugged milk ducts can happen – and they can hurt. If you have a small, tender area of the breast that feels hard (like a knot), you may have a plugged duct. Apply a hot compress and nurse with the affected breast first.
- Each breast has 10-20 milk ducts, so your baby should be opening her mouth as wide as possible to get as much of the areola in her mouth as possible.
- You can breastfeed an adopted baby with the right support and the help of a lactation specialist.