Breastfeeding Basics

What every new mom needs to know about baby's first feeding, latching on, and letting down.

7 min read

Ask any expert, and they'll tell you that breastfeeding is the most natural of a woman's mothering instincts -- an almost indescribable urge, some say, to both nurture and nourish your new born child.

But as any experienced mom can tell you, the moves and motions of feeding a newborn might feel anything but normal or natural, at least in the beginning. Mother Nature may be sending breastfeeding signals your way, but when it comes to knowing exactly what to do, you could find yourself at a complete loss.

"Lots of women wonder why, if breastfeeding is such a normal, natural thing, the skills don't just magically appear," says Jan Wenk, IBCLC, certified lactation counselor at NYU Medical Center in New York City.

The answer, she says, is simply a lack of exposure to the process itself. "A generation or two ago, little girls watched their mother's breastfeed, sisters watched each other -- and women generally had a support system as well as role models they could emulate," says Wenk.

Today, she says, many women don't have any experience on which to draw -- so it's not uncommon for some to feel awkward or even uncomfortable.

The good news is that with just a little bit of knowledge and a tiny bit of patience, you can quickly and easily master the art of breastfeeding, while increasing your comfort level at the same time.

In the same way that you are learning to breastfeed, your baby is also learning to eat. But as natural as the suckling instinct is, don't be surprised if your new little bundle of joy has a bit of trouble mastering what experts call "latching on."

"In essence, this is the way a baby needs to attach to their mother's breast to receive milk," says Carol Huotari, IBCLC, a certified lactation counselor and manager of the Breastfeeding Information Center at La Leche League International in Schaumberg, Ill.

In addition, having a good "latch" also helps mom avoid sore nipples and keeps the breasts from becoming engorged with milk, which in turn can decrease the risk of infection.

To help ensure a good latch, hold your breast and touch your nipple to the center of your baby's lips, Huotari says. This will invoke what is called the "rooting reflex," sending a signal to your baby to open his or her mouth.

As this occurs, she says gently pull your baby toward your breast, allowing your nipple and at least one inch of your entire areola (the dark area surrounding your nipple) to disappear into your baby's mouth. Your baby's lips should look full and pouting, as if they were blowing you a kiss.

"One of the biggest mistakes women make is giving their baby only their nipple to suck. In order for proper latching to take place, much more of the breast must go into the baby's mouth. This is one reason why it's so important that the mouth be as wide as wide as possible when a nursing session begins," Huotari tells WebMD.

Here are some tips to help ensure a proper latch -- particularly the first few times you breast feed. Place your opposite hand underneath your breast and, using your thumb, gently push up under your areola, and position more of your breast in your baby's mouth, making sure not to get your fingers inside.

Still having problems? Huotari suggests repositioning your baby's head so that he or she doesn't have to twist or turn the neck to reach your breast.

So, how do you know if your baby is properly "latched on?" First, if your baby's lips are puckered inward, or if you can see their gums, the "latch" may not be complete.

If your baby is feeding properly, you should hear only a low-pitched swallowing noise -- not a sucking or smacking noise -- and you may see the jaw motioning back and forth, a sign that a successful feeding is taking place.

"What many new mothers don't realize is that breastfeeding is really a very quiet and relaxing time. If your baby is latched on properly they eat very quietly," says Pat Sterna, IBCLC, a lactation counselor from Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

And while it's natural to feel a "tugging" sensation during feeding, if your breasts actually hurt, the latch may be insufficient as well.

If you need to start over, gently insert your finger into the corner of your baby's mouth to break the connection to your body, then reposition your breast and your baby, and try again.

"It can take several tries, particularly the first few times, for both baby and mom to find the most comfortable and correct position," Wenk tells WebMD.

In addition, if it seems as if your baby is having difficulty breathing during nursing, the nose may be too close to your breast. To relieve this problem, simply press down on the flesh of your breast closest to your baby's nose to provide more breathing space.

While you may be feeling more than a bit exhausted after labor and delivery, experts say it's best to begin breastfeeding your baby within 30 minutes after birth, if possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises placing baby in direct skin-to-skin contact with the mother immediately after birth to encourage breastfeeding right away. Why? Here are four key reasons:

  1. Babies are born with very little immunity -- so they need the antibodies present in your milk to gain key protection from disease. And the sooner that protection can begin, says Wenk, the better off your baby will begin.

  2. Experts at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, point out that the yellow, watery premilk (called "colostrum") produced during the first few days of feeding is packed full of protective nutrients. It can also help develop your baby's digestive system. This helps your baby avoid gas and cramping later on.

  3. Huotari says that feeding your baby shortly after birth will help keep the baby's blood sugar level stable.

  4. Babies who feed at the mother's breast soon after birth generally have an easier time adapting to the latching-on process when regular feedings begin.

If possible, experts say you should also try to position your baby to your breast yourself, rather than have a nurse or midwife do it for you. A recent survey highlighted in the British Medical Journal revealed that 71% of new mothers who put their own baby to their breast for the first time were still successfully nursing six weeks later, compared to just 38% of mothers who had someone else position their baby for them.

But if your baby is having problems latching on, or if you simply don't feel physically comfortable while trying to breastfeed, do ask a nurse or attendant for help. Professionals can help you adjust your position or that of your baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises every new mother to make sure a trained caregiver observes her breastfeeding in order to offer tips.

Beginning right from your baby's very first feeding and each time you breastfeed, your body will have a natural reaction called the "let down" reflex -- the process that starts your milk flowing.

For the first few feedings, "let down" can actually take a few minutes. But after a day or two, the process should go much faster. Sometimes only seconds are needed before your baby can begin to feed.

During your first week of breastfeeding, the "let down" reflex might also cause you to feel some cramping or contractions in your uterus, similar to light menstrual pains. Sterna says this is because nursing involves the natural release of oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates the contraction of cells inside the breast that in turn help push your milk from the ducts into your nipples. But oxytocin has another effect: it can cause uterine contractions, which may initially cause some cramping.

The comforting news here: "Not only is the cramping normal, it's a sign that your uterus is beginning to shrink down to its prepregnancy shape and size, which means you're on your way to a flatter tummy," says Sterna.

All breastfeeding-related cramping should diminish in about a week or 10 days. If it doesn't, talk to your doctor.

To help make "let down" faster, particularly during your first week of breastfeeding, experts from La Leche League International offer these tips:

  • Choose a comfortable chair with good back and arm support for each nursing session. Many women report a rocking chair works well.
  • Make certain that your baby is well positioned on your breast for optimum milk flow.
  • If you are feeling tense or nervous, put on some relaxing background music while you nurse, or sip a nutritious drink, such as a fruit smoothie or yogurt shake while baby eats.
  • Make certain not to smoke, drink alcohol, or use recreational drugs while nursing. All can interfere with milk production and make "let down" more difficult.
  • Invest in a nursing bra and, if possible, some nursing tops with flaps that snap open and make positioning your baby easier.
  • Think about nursing. Sometimes just the thought of feeding and nurturing your baby will help stimulate milk to flow.