When a baby is born, breastfeeding early and frequently contributes to a successful start. If the baby is latched onto the breast correctly, and is suckling effectively, there is a direct relationship between the frequency and strength of suckling and subsequent milk supply. These factors have also been shown to contribute to a longer breastfeeding relationship.
In the womb, a baby is fed 'continuously' via the umbilical cord. Once born, the baby has to learn 'intermittent' feeding. It is often very confusing for a new mom to understand what this means, because in our western culture we have been led to believe that our babies should only feed every three to four hours, and any deviation from this indicates either 'colic', 'cramps' or 'spoiling'.
Breastfed babies usually need to feed far more often than three- to four-hourly in the early weeks. This schedule is based on formula-fed babies, who sleep longer because the milk stays in their stomachs for a longer period.
At birth, a full-term, healthy baby (which most babies are!) experiences a very strong suckling reflex in the first thirty minutes. To catch this 'window of opportunity' not only gratifies the baby with colostrum (early milk), but also helps to contract the mother's uterus and stimulate her breasts to make more milk.
It is also emotionally gratifying for the mom, which in itself cements the start of a good breastfeeding relationship. Delaying this opportunity can make it more difficult for the baby to suckle. But there are many other benefits to early and frequent feeding.
The baby immediately receives antibodies from the colostrum – the very first vaccination. Colostrum also serves as a natural laxative, which helps to push out all the meconium (stool) which is filling the baby's intestine. The more frequently the baby feeds, the quicker the meconium passes out and the less jaundiced the baby is likely to become.
Also, getting rid of all the meconium makes room in the baby's digestive tract for larger volumes of milk, which fills the breasts after a few days. Breasts are far less likely to become engorged if milk is being removed from them frequently.
Babies and moms need to learn how to latch properly and establish a good harmony with their breastfeeding. It makes good sense that nature designed our breasts to be less full and softer in the early days, while baby is learning to breastfeed.
The baby is more content and is less likely to cry a lot if his tummy is full. His weight gain will be good, and the milk supply will be adequate if he is allowed to suckle early and frequently.
And of course, attachment, bonding and falling in love with the baby are much more likely to occur when the situation is calm – achieved by early and frequent feeding.
First things first
If there are no complications, the first feed should take place right after birth. Ideally, the baby should be put in skin-to-skin contact with the mom after being towel-dried.
A blanket can be placed over mom and baby if it is cold in the delivery room. Mother-baby contact is also useful in maintaining the healthy newborn's body temperature. Breastfeeding at this point also helps the placenta to be expelled from the womb (this is how other mammals expel the placenta!).
If a caesarian has been performed, there is no reason why the baby cannot suckle once mom has either recovered from the general anaesthetic and is feeling ready, or in the case of an epidural operation, once stitching up is complete. In fact, the baby can be laid on the mom's chest while she is being stitched up.
Newborn babies often only lick and nuzzle at the breast early on, which is still very beneficial, because it promotes colonisation of harmless bacteria on the nipple. This is a natural method of infection control.
If the baby does not latch at this time, be patient. If milk is needed, colostrum can always be hand-expressed onto a teaspoon and fed to the baby. This can be done with guidance from an experienced person, but in general, other people (usually nurses) must keep their hands off – your breasts and baby belong to you!
Unfortunately some methods and customs are such that your confidence and abilities to mother your own baby are undermined, possibly by a well meaning, yet ignorant health worker.
Babies are generally very alert for up to two hours after birth, after which they fall asleep, so seize the opportunity to feed immediately your baby's born! Unfortunately, hospitals interfere and take baby from mom, for bathing, measurements and observation.
Remember that the first feedings have an imprinting effect. Breastfeeding for a first-time mom is not as automatic for her as it is for her baby, because baby's suckling and rooting reflexes have yet to be learned by mom. But without a doubt, the best teacher is your baby!
During the days and weeks that follow, let your baby continue to guide you. Unfortunately, some babies are sleepier than they ought to be, in which case they need to be woken up for feeds.
Breastfed babies usually need at least eight feeds in every 24-hour period, but this can vary from day to day, week to week and month to month.
In order to achieve the joy of a successful breastfeeding relationship, it is ideal for mother and baby to remain together 24 hours per day.
The use of bottle teats, dummies and nipple shields should be discouraged; routine supplementary feeds are unnecessary (unless for medical reasons).
Mothers should be taught to express their milk, should they be separated from their babies for any time.
Confidence and support, preferably from another mother who has successfully breastfed, is essential.
Let your baby show you how.
Don't be confused and overwhelmed by conflicting advice on breastfeeding. Follow your and your baby's instincts. It will create a secure and fulfilling relationship between the two of you.