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Breastfeeding is when a mother gives her baby breast milk to meet her child's nutritional needs for healthy growth and development.
Your body will begin to prepare for breastfeeding during your pregnancy. Your breasts will grow in size as the milk ducts and milk-producing cells develop.
After giving birth, your suckling baby will encourage the release of hormones called prolactin and oxytocin into your bloodstream. Prolactin causes milk to be produced, and oxytocin causes your breasts to secrete the milk, which is called 'let-down'.
You can breastfeed whatever the size and shape of your breasts and nipples. If your nipples are flat or inverted, massaging your nipples or breast shields can help to draw out your nipples. If your breasts are very large, your midwife can help you find suitable positions to breastfeed.
It's ideal to have close (skin-to-skin) contact with your baby early on after delivery. There are various opinions on when it's best to start breastfeeding. The World Health Organization recommends that you should try to breastfeed within an hour of giving birth. However, there isn’t a critical period for starting to breastfeed – the pace and timing of the first feed is up to you and your baby. Your baby will naturally root for your nipple and start to suckle when he or she is ready.
During the first few days of breastfeeding, your breasts will produce colostrum, a thick yellow fluid that's rich in antibodies, which will help to protect your baby against illness.
Find a comfortable position where your arms and back and your baby's head are supported. It's important that your baby latches on to your breast correctly and doesn't just take your nipple in his or her mouth, because this can give you sore nipples.
Your midwife can explain how to check your baby is feeding the right way.
Breast milk contains all the nutrients your baby needs for the first six months. After this time, you can gradually begin to introduce solid food. You can supplement solid food with breast milk for as long as you want to. When you stop breastfeeding is a personal decision.
The World Health Organization recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively for the first six months of their life and to continue breastfeeding along with solid foods for up to two years of age. However, breastfeeding for any length of time will benefit your baby, so don't worry if you have to stop earlier for any reason.
It’s up to you whether you breastfeed your baby or not. However, breastfeeding can be good for you and your baby.
Good for you
There are a number of advantages for you including:
- weight loss – producing breast milk uses up calories
- lower risk of breast cancer
- lower risk of ovarian cancer
Breastfeeding is also an effective contraceptive as it stops ovulation, so long as you’re fully breastfeeding and your baby is under six months and you haven’t had a period. However, don’t rely on this alone, you should use another form of contraception.
Good for your baby
There are also a number of advantages for your baby including those listed below.
- Good nutrition. Breast milk contains everything your growing baby needs, and is easy to digest.
- Better health. Breast milk contains antibodies that help protect your baby against stomach upsets, and ear and chest infections.
- Lower risk of eczema.
- Lower risk of diabetes as a child.
- Lower risk of asthma.
- Lower risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
- Lower risk of being overweight.
There are certain things you may want to consider when deciding on breastfeeding.
- You may have to do all the feeding. Breastfeeding can make it difficult for you to have a break, and your partner may feel excluded. However, you can express breast milk so that your partner (or a babysitter) can feed the baby from a bottle.
- Your breasts may feel heavy and uncomfortable. You shouldn’t have any breast pain but your breasts may feel over-full (engorged) at times and your nipples may become sore and leak milk. Trying different feeding positions, taking warm baths, using nipple creams, shields or breast pads.
- You may feel embarrassed to breastfeed in public. However, it’s important to remember breastfeeding is natural and if you need a quiet area, you may be able to find a mother and baby room where you can feed your baby without being disturbed.
Certain medical problems can make breastfeeding risky for you or your baby. For example, if you have an infection such as HIV, there is a possibility that you could pass this on to your baby through breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding may not be appropriate if you have a serious heart or kidney problem. Talk to your doctor or midwife if you think you may have a problem that could affect your decision to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding isn’t the only option for feeding your baby. You can bottle-feed your baby with infant formula, which is designed to be as close to breast milk as possible. It comes either as a powder that you make up with boiled water, or as a ready-made liquid formula.
Powdered infant formula isn't sterile so it’s important to follow the instructions on the pack and take care with sterilising and cleaning bottles to prevent giving your baby an infection.
Cow’s milk isn’t suitable for newborn babies as it doesn’t provide enough nutrition for babies and is difficult for them to digest.
Small amounts of whatever you eat or drink will be passed on to your baby through your breast milk. You don’t need to eat a special diet while breastfeeding, but it’s important to eat a healthy balanced diet and drink enough fluids (such as water, milk and unsweetened fruit juices). It’s also recommended that all pregnant and breastfeeding women take a daily supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D.
If you have an alcoholic drink, small amounts will be passed on to your baby. The effect alcohol has on your baby depends on how much you drink. It can make your baby drowsy and cause problems with his or her digestion. It could also affect the amount of milk you produce. It’s best not to drink alcohol if you’re breastfeeding, but if you do want a drink, have no more than one to two units once or twice a week.
You can plan to minimise the impact of having a drink. For example, if you know you're going to be drinking, consider expressing your breast milk in advance and don’t breastfeed for at least two to three hours after drinking.
If you smoke, your baby is at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, asthma, ear and chest infections.
Some nicotine will also be passed on to your baby through your breast milk. The best thing you can do for your baby is to stop smoking.
If you take medicines, small amounts will be passed on to your baby through your breast milk. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist which medicines you can safely take while you’re breastfeeding.
- La Leche League International
- The pregnancy book – feeding your baby. Department of Health, 2009. www.dh.gov.uk
- 10 facts on breastfeeding. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published July 2011
- Midwifery practice guideline: early breastfeeding. Royal College of Midwives. www.rcm.org.uk, published May 2008
- Horvath T, Madi BC, Iuppa IM et al. Interventions for preventing late postnatal mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 1. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006734.pub2
- Reducing exposure to secondhand smoke. Department of Health. www.dh.gov.uk, published October 2008
- A guide for new and expectant mothers who work. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, published May 2009
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