By Kenneth L. Noller, MD
Breast milk is nature’s perfect baby food. It provides your baby with complete nutrition, helping to build strong digestive and immune systems and protect against respiratory infections, some childhood cancers, and obesity.
Breastfed babies often have less gas, constipation, and diarrhea, fewer feeding problems, and lower rates of illness than do formula-fed babies. Additionally, women who breastfeed may lose weight faster, experience less stress during the postpartum period, build stronger bonds with their babies, and have a decreased risk of breast cancer.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recognizes breast-feeding as the preferred method for feeding newborns and infants. Breastfeeding is not advisable for some women, and those who choose not to breastfeed should not feel guilty. However, women are encouraged to at least attempt breastfeedingit is beneficial even when practiced for a short amount of time.
Breastfeeding may be difficult for some women at first; they will have to work with their babies to get it right. Women should use their ob-gyns, pediatricians, nurses, and lactation specialists as resources in dealing with the medical and practical issues that may arise.
Talk to your doctor about breastfeeding well before it’s time to deliver and notify the health care team that delivers your baby of your breast-feeding plans. They will help initiate and support breast-feeding once the baby is born.
Try to nurse within the first hour after delivery while your newborn is alert and ready to suck. After your baby gets the hang of breastfeeding, nurse on demand.
Use signs of hunger, such as when your baby nuzzles against your breast, makes sucking motions, or puts a hand in his or her mouth, to guide when you feed your baby. Many newborns will nurse between 8 and 12 times every 24 hours for about 1015 minutes on each breast. Your doctor can explain how to tell if your baby is getting enough milk through diaper-changing patterns and weight gain after the first few days.
Breastfeeding women require about 500 more calories a day than they needed before becoming pregnant. Eat a well-balanced diet that includes at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium, and drink plenty of fluids. Rashes, fussiness, diarrhea, or congestion after nursing can signal a food allergy. Try to identify and avoid foods that seem to cause a reaction in your baby.
Exclusive breastfeeding can temporarily stop ovulation, making it less likely that you will get pregnant. Women trying to avoid pregnancy still need to use birth control. Barrier methods, such as condoms and intrauterine devices, will not affect your milk supply. If you decide to use hormonal contraception, your doctor can help you choose a progestin-only method. The estrogen in combination pills can diminish milk supply early on and should not be used until nursing is established.
Dr. Noller is President of the The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists