Basics of Breastfeeding


In my work as a postpartum doula, I hear new moms talk quite a lot about how much they want to breastfeed as long as possible. And yet, every day I hear new moms skeptically share advice they've been given by family members, friends, and sometimes even from staff at their hospital. 

For this reason, I've put together a series of blog posts that offer basic information about breast milk, breastfeeding, and breastfeeding support. If you'd like to see something added to this series, please send me an email or leave me a comment, and we'll try to make sure that the information and support available to moms like you who want to breastfeed will actually help you meet your goals!

Your Breasts

Hopefully you’ve heard this before, but every breast is unique! And yet! Most breasts are able to produce breast milk for several years and feed a newborn regardless of breast size or nipple shape. If your breasts are very small, you may be limited in the amount of milk your breasts can store at once, but in no way does that mean you are limited in the amount you can make. Your breast size is not a predictor of breastfeeding success.

And if your breasts are quite large, you may feel pretty confident in your ability to produce and store breast milk, but instead, you may find you struggle with finding a feeding position that works for your particular anatomy. Large breasts often need more or different support during the latching stage of feeding compared to small breasts, but again, breast size is not a predictor of breastfeeding success.

Your particular nipple size and shape also should not affect your ability to breastfeed. Maybe you think your nipples are especially unique (so many new moms secretly think so!) but believe me, your baby can learn to nurse even from your particular breasts and nipples. Take a deep breath, put your self-consciousness aside, and practice, practice, practice.

There are, however, two exceptions: truly inverted nipples can make it difficult to get started with breastfeeding, but if breastfeeding is an important goal for you, there are things you can try on your way to success, so definitely look for experienced and supportive help from a well-trained IBCLC, your local La Leche League, or some other lactation specialist.

The other potential difficulty to breastfeeding is if you’ve had some kind of breast surgery. In this case, the biggest factor affecting breastfeeding success tends to be whether or not the nipple was moved. While some amount of milk ducts or glands may have been affected by a surgery, the remaining tissues may be able to produce plenty of breast milk, and in some cases, new pathways or channels between ducts and the nipple may even be formed. Be sure to discuss the particulars of your breast surgery with a lactation specialist if breastfeeding is important to you!

Feeding your baby at the breast

Most babies seem to latch on to the breast instinctively, but not always correctly! A proper latch is often a learned skill! It’s really important to get help in the first few days to learn what a good latch should look like and feel like. Here are a few key basics to keep in mind: try to hold the baby’s belly to your belly, his nose to your nipple, prompt the baby to open wide by tilting his head back (kind of like… a pez dispenser) and once he is latched, see if you can flare his lips out. In this way, you make sure your baby doesn’t have to turn his head while feeding and that he gets more than just your nipple in his mouth.

This is a good start! It’s important to keep in mind that newborns are slow eaters - yes, sucking usually comes naturally, but feeding at the breast takes endurance! And babies who are especially sleepy in the early weeks can struggle to stay awake through a full feeding, and may need to be woken up and kept awake in order to make sure they are eating enough! Typical baby advice suggests that newborns and infants should feed about every 2-3 hours for 15-20 minutes at a time, but be prepared to spend quite a lot more time than that nursing your newborn! It’s not unusual for newborns to feed nearly every hour, and often for half an hour or more per side. Usually, babies become more efficient as they grow, but if breastfeeding is important to you, make room in your daily schedule to spend quite a lot of time nursing your baby, at least in the earliest weeks!

Pain while breastfeeding

Is pain during breastfeeding normal? Some lactation specialists insist that with a correct latch, you should not feel any pain while nursing. But plenty of new moms insist that there seems to be a period of time in the earliest days when the process of latching their babies is pretty painful, though not unbearable, and that it usually doesn’t last. This pain is likely due to the fact that early latching may be clumsy, and both you and baby are working on getting it right. Good technique should correct any pain, but many new moms report feeling some pain in the first thirty seconds of nursing that lasts through the first week or two.

Pain that lasts enough to make you quit breastfeeding likely signals a problem that can almost definitely be corrected. If you are very determined, seek out frequent visits with an experienced lactation specialist and do what you can to perfect your technique. It may also be useful to have your baby evaluated for a lip or tongue-tie. This common complication can restrict your baby’s ability to latch properly or remove milk from the breast efficiently, and will likely cause you a great deal of persistent pain, and may even impact your baby’s ability to gain weight. Visit a pediatric dentist for an evaluation and treatment - the correction of a tongue-tie is a fairly straightforward procedure, after which breastfeeding should become noticeably easier and more comfortable!

Get just a small sampling of the kind of support you’ll receive in the Ready for Baby! workshop and the Virtual Doula Care package by downloading my Postpartum Survival Handbook! It’s my gift to you and includes quick and simple information about 10 crucial postpartum recovery and newborn care issues you maybe don't want to ask about out loud yet. (think: childbirth recovery, breastfeeding basics, safe baby sleep, and cloth diapers, even!)

Finding support

As you prepare to bring your baby home, be sure to talk to your doctor about your feeding options, and if you plan to breastfeed, collect the contact information for breastfeeding counselors, lactation educators, IBCLCs, and other breastfeeding resources available in your area!

And come join me in my online baby-prep course, Ready for Baby! to learn more about breastfeeding techniques and troubleshooting, as well as childbirth recovery tips, newborn care support, baby sleep resources and more! The course opens on the first Monday of every month! Sign up here!