Because breastfeeding or chestfeeding is natural, many new parents assume that they should be able to do it straight away. The truth is that it comes more easily to some than it does to others. Breastfeeding is a skill that you and your baby learn together.
It may feel a bit awkward at first, but try not to worry. Your midwife or health visitor can help guide and support you. There may be other support in your local area too.
Your breasts change a lot during and after pregnancy, so it’s important to check them regularly and be aware of any unusual changes. This is called ‘breast awareness’. Breast awareness is important because some breast changes might be a sign of breast cancer.
In collaboration with Tommy's, CoppaFeel! has produced a new resource especially for women and pregnant people about natural breast changes during and after pregnancy, tips on how to check your breasts and what to do if you notice any changes. Find out more about your breasts during and after pregnancy.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding can be a great way to form and nurture a loving and strong bond with your baby. It can improve your mental health, boost your wellbeing and protect your baby, too. Breast milk does not cost money.
What are the health benefits for my baby?
Breastfeeding protects your baby's health, from birth right through to when they’re an adult. Some research has shown that breast milk has nutrients that helps with healthy brain development.
It can also help protect your baby against:
- diarrhoea and vomiting
- sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- heart disease in later life.
How does breastfeeding benefit premature babies?
Babies born before 37 weeks have a weakened immune system, which makes it harder for them to fight infection. Breast milk helps premature babies fight infection, which improves their chances of staying healthy.
Your milk contains the antibodies, hormones and other nutrients your premature baby needs for healthy growth and development.
Find out more about feeding your premature baby in hospital.
Find out more about feeding your premature baby at home.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding for me?
Breastfeeding your baby releases oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’. This can help you feel calmer and boost your loving bond with your baby.
During pregnancy the womb (uterus), expands slowly to make room for your growing baby. Breastfeeding can help the womb slowly go back to its normal size after the birth because it makes your womb contract. Find out more about your body after the birth.
Breastfeeding can also help to reduce your risk of:
- breast cancer
- ovarian cancer
- weak bones (osteoporosis)
- heart disease
There are lots of other reasons why you may want to breastfeed. For example, breastfeeding:
- doesn’t cost money (you have to pay for formula, bottles and sterilising equipment)
- can be quicker, as you do not have to make up sterile bottles
- can be easier to do when you are out and about.
Is there any reason why I should not breastfeed?
In rare cases, there are medical reasons for not breastfeeding. For example, if you have HIV and your viral load is detectable, you will be advised not to breastfeed. Talk to your specialist, doctor or midwife if you think you have an illness that means you should not breastfeed.
Some prescription medications should not be taken while breastfeeding. Your midwife or health visitor can advise you about taking medications while breastfeeding.
It is dangerous to take illegal drugs while you are breastfeeding because they can be passed to your baby through your breast milk. The long-term effects of taking illegal drugs while breastfeeding is still unknown.
Speak to your GP, midwife or health visitor if you are using illegal drugs. This may be hard, but they are there to support you and your baby, not judge you. They will help you access the support you need.
You can also visit the FRANK website.
How soon can I start breastfeeding?
You can start trying to breastfeed, as soon as your baby is born. In the first few days after birth, your breasts will produce a rich, 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 (perhaps every hour).
Your milk ‘comes in’ after about 3 days. At this point you will notice that your breasts get much fuller. The amount of milk you make will go up or down based on how much your baby drinks. It can take a few days for your milk supply to match their needs.
If you have had more than one baby, such as twins, your body will make enough milk for all your babies.
It may be a little harder to get breastfeeding going after a caesarean section. It helps if you start breastfeeding as soon as you can after your baby is born. There are lots of things you can try that will help get breastfeeding established after a c-section.
How long should I breastfeed for?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding (feeding breast milk only) for the first 6 months.
From the age of 6 months, WHO recommends that you can start giving your baby other foods while continuing to breastfeed until they are 2 years old.
The longer you breastfeed for, the greater the benefits. But try not to feel any pressure about how long you breastfeed for. Any amount of breast milk has a positive effect.
It is up to you and your baby when you decide to stop breastfeeding, no one else.
How do I get breastfeeding started?
If your baby has not been born yet, start by letting your midwife know that you would like to breastfeed. You can add it to your birth plan for example. Then, when your baby is born, they will be placed on your breast as soon as possible. Babies have an instinct to look for your breast.
Latching on is how your baby attaches to your breast to feed. NHS Start for Life has more information (including a video) about latching on.
How do I know if I am doing it right?
You and your baby are both new to this. Do not worry if it takes a little time for you to get the hang of it. By around day 5, if things are going well, your baby should:
- have 8 feeds or more in 24 hours
- be feeding for between 5 and 40 minutes at each feed
- have a healthy skin colour
- tend to be calm and relaxed while feeding and content after feeds
- be having at least 3 wet nappies, and at least 2 dirty nappies, each day
- swallow often while they feed, which you should be able to hear.
Lots of people struggle with breastfeeding in the early days. That can be for all sorts of reasons. But it should not be painful, or cause you distress.
You do not need any extra pressure, or anxiety, so ask for help if you need it.
Who can support me with breastfeeding?
Your midwife and health visitor can help you find the right breastfeeding position for you, check your baby is attaching as they should, and give you any other support you need. If you need to express milk, they can show you how to do so until your baby is able to breastfeed.
If you want to speak to someone between appointments with your health visitor, you should be able to find details of local support in your baby’s red book. This is the personal child health record, where all your child’s health and development reviews are recorded.
Their red book should also contain contact details of local breastfeeding drop-ins and centres. You can find details of local support on the NHS website, too.
Can I chestfeed if I’m trans or non-binary?
Chestfeeding if you’ve had top surgery
You may be able to chestfeed or express if you have had top surgery. It is not possible to know how much milk you will produce. Your baby may find it difficult to latch on to your nipple if there is less soft tissue available. You may need to offer your baby extra feeds using formula milk.
If possible, talk to your midwife about chestfeeding during your pregnancy so they are ready to support you when your baby is born.
Binding while chestfeeding
Binding your chest will not stop you chestfeeding, although it does put you more at higher risk of getting mastitis (when the breast/chest becomes swollen, hot and painful). A larger or more flexible binder can help prevent this. Talk to your midwife or GP if you think you may have mastitis.
Taking testosterone while chestfeeding
Taking testosterone may decrease your milk supply.
Choosing whether to chestfeed your baby is a personal decision. Some people experience dysphoria with breast or chestfeeding and they may decide not to chest feed for mental health reasons.
There are different feeding options, including supplemental nursing system (SNS) and milk donation you can explore.
If possible, talk to your midwife about chestfeeding during your pregnancy so they are ready to support you when your baby is born.
La Leche League GB has more information about chestfeeding if you are trans or non-binary.
Why do my breasts hurt?
Your body makes breast milk on a supply-and-demand basis so that your baby always has enough. Your breasts may feel very full (engorged) at first, but this should settle down once you and your baby get used to breastfeeding.
Try feeding your baby while your breasts are engorged, massaging your breasts or expressing a little milk by hand. Try not to express too often, as it can increase your milk supply and engorge your breasts again.
A build-up of milk can sometimes lead to a blocked duct, which can cause mastitis if not relieved. Mastitis usually affects one breast, and symptoms can come on quickly. These include:
- a swelling on your breast that may feel hot and painful – the area may be red, which can be harder to see on brown or black skin
- a wedge-shaped breast lump, or an area of hardness on your breast
- a burning pain in your breast
- nipple discharge, which may be white or contain streaks of blood
- flu-like symptoms, such as aches, a high temperature (fever), chills and feeling tired
Mastitis most often happens in the first 2 to 3 weeks of breastfeeding although it can happen at any time. If you think you have a blocked duct or mastitis it can help to:
- gently massage the swelling toward your nipple, while your baby feeds
- take paracetamol
- wear loose clothes and a comfy, soft bra
- ease milk flow by putting a cloth soaked in warm water on your breast, or having a warm bath or shower
- place a cloth soaked in cold water on your breast to soothe pain
- continue to feed your baby, and express after a feed.
Most people get better quickly. See your GP if you still have symptoms or feel worse after 12 to 24 hours, as you may need antibiotics.
Your midwife, health visitor or breastfeeding supporter can also check your feeding position and how well your baby attaches, to see if breastfeeding could be made easier for you both.
My nipples are cracked and sore. What can I do?
Sore nipples are most common in the first week of breastfeeding. It can happen because your baby is not attached well at your breast. They need to take a big mouthful of your breast so that they are not sucking directly on your nipple.
If your nipples hurt ask your midwife, health visitor or breastfeeding supporter to check your breastfeeding position. You may also find it helps to:
- hand express a little milk at the end of a feed and massage it onto your nipple
- let your nipples dry before getting dressed again
- use breast pads and change them often
- wear a cotton breastfeeding bra
- avoid using nipple shields or breast shells.
Some people treat cracks with lanolin, or Vaseline. You can also buy nipple creams.
Once your nipples are damaged, breastfeeding can be very painful, which is very hard on you when you’re doing it as often as is needed for a newborn baby. You can take paracetamol for the pain but check with a GP or health visitor before taking any other types of painkillers, such as ibuprofen.
It is vital to get help from a healthcare professional about sore nipples. If your baby is not attached quite right then your nipples will not heal.
Some babies have something called tongue-tie, where the strip of skin connecting their tongue to the bottom of their mouth (frenulum) is shorter than usual. It can restrict the tongue’s movement, making breastfeeding harder. This can lead to sore nipples because the baby cannot attach well to the breast. Your midwife can check for tongue-tie, and refer your baby to a specialist.
Tongue-tie can be corrected with a simple procedure if it is affecting your baby’s ability to feed. Talk to your midwife or health visitor, if you need further support to carry on breastfeeding while you wait for the procedure.
Your healthcare professional can also check that something else, such as thrush, is not making your nipples sore.
Other factors that can make breastfeeding harder
Breastfeeding is sometimes tough because it can take a while for your breasts and nipples to get used to it. It can also be hard because of health conditions or other reasons. For example, you may have low milk supply because you have:
- depression or anxiety
- an eating disorder
- having had breast surgery in the past
- thyroid problems.
- Smoking and drinking alcohol excessively can also decrease your milk supply.
Midwives and health visitors are there to support you through the trials of being a new parent. Do not be afraid to ask for help with caring for your baby. You can also see your GP if you think there are medical reasons why you find breastfeeding hard.
Can I breastfeed in public?
You should feel free to breastfeed in public, but we still hear stories from people who have been made to feel they cannot.
If you do not feel confident breastfeeding in public, you may want to stay close to home, at least to start with. Your baby will need feeding quite often, and will not be willing to wait until you get home!
It is against the law to ask a woman who is breastfeeding to leave a public space, such as a café or public transport, in England and Wales. Do not feel like you should hide away, for example, in a public toilet. You would not eat in a toilet, your baby should not have to, either.
There are lots of clothes designed for breastfeeding that open at the breast so you do not have to lift your top. Or you could try wearing two layers, so that the top layer can be pulled up, and the bottom layer pulled down. Wearing a nursing bra is also helpful. Lots of people use baby slings, a big scarf, or a cloth to cover themselves while breastfeeding.
You may want to take a partner, friend or family member out with you to give you confidence, and for an extra pair of helping hands.
Can I have an alcoholic drink while breastfeeding?
Alcohol can pass into your breastmilk and then to your baby. If you are breastfeeding the odd alcoholic drink is unlikely to harm your baby. Try to wait at least 2 hours after having a drink, before you next feed your baby, to be on the safe side.
If you are planning to go out for a drink, you may want to express milk in advance. Then, your baby can have your breast milk from a bottle while you are out, and while you are waiting for alcohol to clear from your system.
Drinking more than the recommended limit of 14 units a week can harm you and your baby. It can reduce your milk supply, and affect your baby's sleep. It may also cause problems with your baby's growth and development.
Can I smoke while breastfeeding?
Not smoking will help protect your baby against:
- sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS or cot death)
- breathing problems
- ear infections and hearing loss
- behavioural problems.
But if you are finding it hard to stop smoking it is important not to stop breastfeeding. Your breast milk will still protect your baby from infections and provide essential nutrients.
There is lots of support available to help you stop smoking. Find out more about smoking after your baby is born.
Can my partner help with breastfeeding?
Yes. First of all, they can support your choice to breastfeed, help you to feel good about it and be there for you if you’re having problems.
There are also practical ways they can help, like getting extra pillows to make sure you are comfy while you feed, and getting you a glass of water.
You may want to express breast milk so your partner can bottle-feed it to your baby. Just be aware that introducing a bottle can make breastfeeding harder. It is best to wait at least 6-8 weeks until you and your baby have got used to breastfeeding. Practise expressing first so you are confident at it before you offer your baby a bottle.
If your partner is the one trying to breastfeed, you can do a lot to support them, such as:
- finding out how breastfeeding works, by going to antenatal or breastfeeding sessions with them
- taking parental leave early on, so that you can be there to support your partner in the first days and weeks after the birth
- making sure they have drinks and snacks while feeding
- doing what you can around the house, and making sure there is plenty of time for them to focus on getting breastfeeding started, without too many distractions or visitors
- getting involved in your baby's care between feeds, so your partner can rest or have a shower.
I do not want to breastfeed anymore. Is it OK to stop?
Breastfeeding is your decision. It is OK to stop and you do not need to feel guilty if it is not for you. There are many reasons why people do not breastfeed, or why they stop before they thought they would. You don’t need to have a reason, you may just decide not to continue.
As my baby got older, her feeds became longer and longer. I suffer from migraines, and the lack of sleep made them worse. I combined breast with bottle-feeding formula for a while, but still felt extremely tired and run down. So, although I didn’t really want to, I decided to stop breastfeeding.
If you are having problems breastfeeding, but want to carry on, there is support there for you. Talk to your health visitor or local breastfeeding support services. They can find a way forward that works for you and your baby.
You may find our information about formula feeding useful.
You can find more information about stopping breastfeeding.
Where can I find more support and information?
The National Breastfeeding Helpline is open 9.30am-9.30pm, 365 days a year. It provides judgement free, evidence-based support and information on 0300 100 0212. You can also make contact via webchat and send a private message on social media.
The Breastfeeding Network provides support and information about breastfeeding. They also provide webchat, an ‘information service about drugs in breast milk’ and can help you find a local drop-in group or peer support.
The Association of Breastfeeding Mothers (ABM) is a group of trained volunteers who support breastfeeding parents and their families. They provide online information, a helpline, webchat and local support groups.
The Twins Trust is a charity for families with twins and triplets. They provide information about pregnancy and parenthood, including breastfeeding.
The National Childbirth Trust is a charity that provides information and support on all aspects of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood, including breastfeeding. They offer an infant feeding helpline, and a postcode search for your nearest Baby Café or drop-in, where you can get support from a trained breastfeeding counsellor.
The UKAMB has information about using donated breast milk if your baby is premature or ill, and how to donate breast milk.
La Leche League GB provide breastfeeding support across Great Britain and the Isle of Man.