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Breastfeeding Myths: Experts Set the Record Straight

breastfeeding baby

Before my daughter was born, a friend suggested that I rub my nipples with a loofah sponge to "toughen them up" for nursing. In my desire to be a good mom, I followed her advice until my nipples were sore. Although my friend meant well, not only didn't her recommendation work, it was downright painful. In fact, a lot of the breastfeeding "tips" I got (and that you've probably heard) are bogus. Our experts uncover the truth about these popular myths--and offer the best advice for breastfeeding success.

Myth: You Need to Prep Your Breasts
During pregnancy your breasts naturally undergo changes that get them ready for breastfeeding, says Christina Smillie, M.D., a pediatrician, lactation expert, and founder of Breastfeeding Resources, in Stratford, Connecticut. Even before your baby is born, the area around your nipples will thicken and the glands in your areolas will produce oils for lubrication and protection.

Once your baby arrives and you begin breastfeeding, a surge in the hormone oxytocin makes your nipples more pliable and stretchy for your baby's mouth. If you have flat or inverted nipples, a lactation consultant can teach you techniques that will help you nurse.

Myth: It's Normal for Nursing to Hurt
Although it's common to feel discomfort at first, pain is a sign that your baby isn't latching onto your breast properly. Instead of focusing only on your nipple, she should be opening wide and pulling your nipple and breast deep into her mouth, using her jaw and tongue to massage milk out of your breast, explains Parents advisor Jane Morton, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and a breastfeeding expert in Menlo Park, California. Keep changing positions until your baby feels safe and secure. With a little time and patience, you'll both get it right.

How to Correct Latch-On Problems
How to Correct Latch-On Problems

Myth: It Will Cause Your Breasts to Sag
In reality, droopy breasts are a result of pregnancy, because hormonal changes cause the ligaments underneath them to loosen and stretch. As you gain weight and your breasts become larger and heavier, they may begin to sag, explains Matthew R. Schulman, M.D., assistant professor of plastic surgery at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. When you first begin to nurse, your breasts may become swollen with milk (a temporary process called engorgement) and grow larger; however, they'll diminish in size once you've established a solid breastfeeding routine. After you wean your baby, your breasts will become softer and you can expect them to return to their pre-pregnancy size, unless you've gained or lost a significant amount of weight.

Myth: Foods You Eat Can Give Your Baby Gas
Breast milk receives nutrients from the bloodstream, which means that you (not your baby) digest fiber and carbs that may cause gas, says Dacia Montes, a registered lactation consultant in Oakland, California. So, unless you have a family history of food allergies, go ahead and enjoy that broccoli salad, spicy chili, or bean burrito. A small percentage of babies develop an eczema-like rash because they're sensitive to an allergen. If your baby's rash is mild, eliminate dairy--which is the most common culprit--from your diet for a few weeks and then see if his symptoms improve. Consult your pediatrician right away if his rash becomes severe, you notice blood in his stool, or he's excessively fussy.

Myth: Moms Who Take Antidepressants Shouldn't Breastfeed
Untreated postpartum depression can make nursing more difficult and stressful, so it's important to get help if you've been feeling blue for two or more weeks, says Stephanie Ho, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist in New York City. If you need medication, a mental-health specialist with experience in treating postpartum depression will know which antidepressants are safe to prescribe to breastfeeding moms. If you took antidepressants while you were pregnant, stick to the same medication to keep your baby's exposure to a minimum.

Myth: You Have to "Pump and Dump" After You Drink Alcohol
Rather than throw away your precious breast milk, time your glass of wine or beer wisely. After you've had a drink, it will leave your milk at the same rate that it leaves your bloodstream, explains Dr. Ho. To make sure that your milk is alcohol-free, wait at least two and a half hours before nursing again. You can also dip test strips from the drugstore into a sample of your breast milk to ensure it's untainted. Consider pumping milk ahead of time in case your baby becomes hungry while the alcohol is still in your system.

Myth: You Can't Get Pregnant While Nursing
If you are having sex, you can get pregnant, regardless of whether you're breastfeeding. However, you're less likely to conceive if you are within the first six months of breastfeeding, your period has not returned, and your baby is nursing every two to three hours, even at night. Unless you're ready for another child, talk to your doctor about your best birth-control options.

Myth: You Shouldn't Nurse if You're Sick
Continuing to breastfeed while you have a cold or the flu actually helps protect your baby from illness. The germ-fighting antibodies that your body is busy making are transferred to your baby every time she nurses. As a result, she probably won't get sick at all, or if she does, it will be a milder version of whatever is ailing you, says Dr. Smillie. Keeping up your bonding sessions, in spite of feeling rotten, can help improve your mood too.

Myth: If You Don't Nurse, You're a Bad Mom
Although breastfeeding provides significant health benefits for your baby and you, deciding not to breastfeed--or being unable to breastfeed for whatever reason--doesn't make you an unfit mother. Feed your baby a formula that you feel good about, and move on. With your love and care, your child will thrive whether he dines on breast milk, formula, or some combination of the two.

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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