One of many things a new or expectant mother must consider is whether to breastfeed or formula feed her baby.
"Your breastmilk is your baby's best source of nutrition, but it's also more than food," says Christine Howard, a lactation consultant at Houston Methodist. "It contains antibodies that can protect your baby from illnesses, and breastfeeding can also reduce the risk of your baby developing certain health conditions, such as asthma, obesity and type 1 diabetes."
It's why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding a newborn for the first six months — for mothers able to.
But it's not always as simple as putting your baby to your breast and hoping he or she figures things out from there.
"That's not the case most of the time, in fact," says Howard.
Here are Howard's five tips for navigating how to breastfeed your newborn.
1. Take a breastfeeding class
"Ideally, parents should start thinking about breastfeeding during pregnancy," says Howard. "I recommend taking a breastfeeding class early, whether in person or virtually."
Though each baby is different, a class helps educate you about what to expect when it comes to breastfeeding your baby, notes Howard.
"Breastfeeding can be tough to navigate at first," says Howard. "While some issues may only arise after your baby is born, learning as much as you can about breastfeeding gives you a better chance of making it through those first days and weeks successfully."
She adds that taking a class can also help you understand all your options if you're struggling with breastfeeding, options that make sense to try before you just resort to formula.
Not all insurance plans cover lactation classes and consultations, but many do — so be sure to check with your insurance provider to see what breastfeeding resources are available. If your insurance doesn't come with lactation benefits, the out-of-pocket charge for a breastfeeding class can be minimal, particularly if you choose an online option.
2. Let your childbirth team know that you want to breastfeed
If your goal is to exclusively breastfeed, be sure to let your doctor and care team know.
This is important because, if your baby gets behind on feeding, a care team not aware how committed you are to breastfeeding may recommend formula.
"That first feeding typically goes very well, with baby latching on right away," says Howard. "But subsequent feedings can get trickier just by nature of being in a hospital where a lot is going on — such as family, doctors, nurses and staff coming and going."
While the health of your baby must remain the priority, Howard has advice for new moms who want to avoid formula if possible.
"If your baby is stable but there's a concern about a lack of feeding, you can always ask for more time to try breastfeeding," Howard says. "In the meantime, you can also ask the staff to call the lactation consultant, check the baby's blood sugar or provide you with a breast pump."
3. Have an idea of what to expect during the first week of breastfeeding
Here again Howard recommends taking a breastfeeding class prior to delivery.
"The majority of what I cover in a class is how to get through those first few days," Howard adds. "We have a lot of tools, resources and handouts that we provide parents to help accomplish this."
From how your baby's appetite will change to the number of wet diapers and feedings to expect each day, knowing what's considered "normal" in your baby's first five days can be invaluable — though it's OK if your baby deviates slightly from the norm.
"One of the things I see parents struggle with the most during that first week is how to navigate feeding a baby that's extremely sleepy," says Howard.
People tend to think that their baby will wake up to eat if he or she is hungry enough, but Howard adds that this isn't always true.
"It may go against what you've heard, but you will need to wake your sleeping baby," says Howard. "And you sometimes have to be very assertive about waking your baby and keeping them awake throughout the feed — undressing them, fiddling with them or gently tickling them."
4. Know when to call your doctor or lactation consultant
Each baby is different, but it's important to know when you might need help breastfeeding.
Signs it might be time to reach out to your doctor or a lactation consultant after the first week of breastfeeding include:
- Your baby seems to be hungry all the time
- You're worried about your milk supply
- Your baby has fewer than six wet diapers per day
- Your baby has fewer than three yellow stools per day
- You experience pain in your nipples while feeding
- Your nipples are cracked and bleeding
"The majority of moms take their baby to the pediatrician a few days after delivery, and that checkup can also help determine how breastfeeding is going," says Howard. "If your baby is losing more weight than they should be, your pediatrician will likely recommend a lactation consultation."
A lactation consultant can help determine how much milk your baby is getting during a feed, whether there may be latching issues that need correcting and other important considerations.
5. Have a return-to-work plan
The most important part of continuing to breastfeed when you return to work is learning the ins and outs of collecting and storing your milk. A breast pump, of course, will be essential.
A lactation consultant can help answer any questions you might have about breast pumps, including how to set up and use one. You can choose to buy or rent a breast pump, though most insurance companies cover the cost to buy one.
"To slowly ease your baby into taking a bottle, introduce them to bottled breast milk around week three or four," says Howard. "You'll also want to give your baby an occasional reminder bottle here and there in the weeks leading up to returning to work."
A few weeks before your return, it's time to begin building up your supply of breast milk.
"The first day of being away from your baby will likely be overwhelming, so having a plan in place for your baby's feedings can help relieve some of the stress," Howard adds.
Howard offers the following advice:
- The night before work, cold thaw however much breastmilk you think your baby may need the next day
- The morning of, give yourself plenty of time to breastfeed your baby before work
- In addition to the thawed bottled supply, provide your caregiver with a small amount of frozen supply as backup
- Carry a breast pump bag that contains everything you need for pumping and storing breastmilk at work
- Identify a private place where you can pump at work
- Block off time on your schedule to pump
- Try and reserve stored breastmilk for when you're away, still breastfeeding in the evenings and on weekends