Because breastfeeding is a natural experience, many new mums assume that they should be able to do it straightaway. In reality, it may come easily to some, but not others. Breastfeeding is a skill that you and your baby learn together. It may feel a bit awkward at first but don’t worry, your midwife and health visitor can support you.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding?
There are many physical and emotional benefits to breastfeeding. At the start, it can be a wonderful way to develop a loving relationship and a strong emotional bond with your baby. It can also improve mental health and wellbeing for both of you.
Health benefits for your baby
Breastfeeding has long-term health benefits for your baby that last right into adulthood. It can help to improve a baby’s IQ, as well as improve their personal and social development.
It can also help reduce the risk of:
- childhood leukaemia
- sudden infant death syndrome
- food allergies
- heart disease in later life.
Babies born before 37 weeks have a weakened immune system, which makes it more difficult for them to fight infection. Breastfeeding a premature baby will help to protect them.
Your milk is also perfectly balanced to suit your premature baby because it contains the antibodies, hormones and other factors needed for growth and development.
Benefits for you
Breastfeeding can help reduce the risk of:
- breast cancer
- ovarian cancer
- anaemia (where the tissues and organs around your body don’t get enough oxygen, making you feel weak, tired and short of breath).
Formula milk doesn’t give babies the same protection from illness and doesn’t give you any health benefits.
There are lots of practical reasons why you may want to breastfeed, too. For example, breastfeeding is:
- cheaper than formula feeding
- quicker, as you don’t have to make up bottles all the time
- easier to do when you’re out and about.
How soon do I start breastfeeding?
You can start trying to breastfeed as soon as the baby is born, if you want to. In the first few days after your baby is born, your breasts will produce yellow fluid called colostrum. This is concentrated food, so your baby will not need a lot during each feed, but they may want to feed quite often (maybe every hour).
Your milk ‘comes in’ after about 3 days and you’ll notice that your breasts get much fuller. The amount of milk you make will increase or decrease depending on how much your baby drinks. It can take a few days for your milk supply to match their needs.
If you’ve had more than one baby, your body will make enough milk for all your babies.
It can sometimes be a little harder to establish breastfeeding after a caesarean section, but there are lots of things you can try that will help.
How long should I breastfeed for?
The World Health Organization recommends that all babies are exclusively breastfed for 6 months, and then for 2 years or as long as mother and baby want to, alongside solid food.
The longer you breastfeed, the longer the protection lasts and the greater the benefits. Try not to worry about how long you’re able to breastfeed for. Any amount of breast milk has a positive effect.
It’s up to you and your baby when you decide to stop breastfeeding.
Is there any reason why I can’t breastfeed?
In some rare cases, there are medical reasons for not breastfeeding. For example, you would be advised not to breastfeed if you have HIV.
There are also some medications, such as lithium, that aren’t suitable for breastfeeding. Talk to your midwife or health visitor if you have physical or mental health condition and/or are taking any medications.
Breastfeeding and alcohol
If you're breastfeeding, an occasional alcoholic drink is unlikely to cause any harm. But try not to have more than 1 or 2 units of alcohol once or twice a week. There's some evidence that regularly drinking more than 2 units of alcohol a day while breastfeeding may affect your baby's development.
Find out more using our alcohol unit calculator.
Breastfeeding and smoking
If you’re a new mum, it’s very important to try to quit smoking. But even if you’re finding it difficult, it’s important not to stop breastfeeding. Your breastmilk will still protect your baby from infections and provide nutrients.
If you or your partner smoke, try to smoke outside so your home stays smoke free. It’s also important not to share a bed with your baby if you smoke because this increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
How do I breastfeed?
- Sit comfortably with your back supported.
- Hold your baby with their head and body in a straight line.
- Hold your baby close to you and support their neck, back and shoulders. Your baby should be able to tilt their head back easily, and they shouldn’t have to reach out to feed.
- Place your baby’s nose opposite your nipple.
- Let your baby’s head tip back a little so that their top lip can brush against your nipple. This should help your baby to make a wide-open mouth.
- When your baby’s mouth opens wide, their chin should be able to touch your breast first, with their head tipped back so that their tongue can reach as much breast as possible.
- Once your baby has latched on, their nose should be clear and their cheeks should look full and rounded as they feed.
Who can help me with breastfeeding?
You may have included something about trying to breastfeed straight after the birth in your birth plan. Even if you haven’t thought about it before, your midwife should be there after the birth to help you start breastfeeding.
Unless there are any problems, you shouldn’t be separated from your baby for at least an hour after they are born. During this time, your midwife should help you have skin to skin contact with your baby, which helps encourage breastfeeding.
Your midwife will help you breastfeed, including how to position your baby on the breast and attach them effectively. You should also be shown how to express.
Your health visitor will also be able to help.
If you want to speak to someone between appointments, you should be able to find details of local support in your baby’s red book. This is your personal child health record, where all your child’s health and development reviews are recorded.
Your red book should also contact details of local breastfeeding drop-ins, cafes and centres. You can also find details of local support on the NHS website.
How can partners help with breastfeeding?
If your partner is trying to breastfeed, you can do a lot to support her, including:
- providing encouragement and reassurance
- making sure your partner has everything they need to stay comfortable while breastfeeding
- doing whatever you can to keep stress to a minimum
- talk to your partner while she’s breastfeeding if she’s feeling very tired
- encourage your partner to eat and drink regularly.
More support and information
The breastfeeding companion provides tips and advice for struggling mothers.
The Breastfeeding Network provides support and information about breastfeeding. They also provide a helpline and webchat service.
The Association of breastfeeding mothers are a group of trained volunteers supporting breastfeeding mums and their families. They provide online information, a helpline, webchat and local support groups.
Twins Trust is a charity supporting families with twins and triplets. They provide information about pregnancy and parenthood, including breastfeeding.
The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) is a charity that provides information and support on all aspects of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood, including breastfeeding.
The UK Association for Milk Banking has information about using donated breast milk if your baby is premature or ill, and how to donate breast milk.
Baby Café is a network of breastfeeding drop-ins. You can find your nearest drop-in on the website by entering your postcode.