16 Things You Didn't Know About Breastfeeding

Check out these surprising facts for nursing newbies.

Just mention the word breastfeeding and suddenly everyone from your mother to the woman who waxes your eyebrows has some insight to offer. (Try cabbage leaves! Wait to pump! Pump from the very start!) Still, there's a whole heck of a lot nobody tells you about nursing. Read on for the honest truth from experts, and most important, fellow moms.

1. You don't need to eat like a dietitian.

Don't feel guilty for taking an extra helping at dinnertime; you need an additional 500 calories per day to help produce breast milk. For your baby's sake, make those calories count. "Eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables as well as foods containing calcium," says Laurie Beck, R.N., I.B.C.L.C., president of the Morrisville, N.C.-based U.S. Lactation Consultant Association. Breast milk is rich in calcium, and if your diet is lacking in this important nutrient, your body will use your own calcium stores, which could leave you deficient.

Also, don't beat yourself up over having an Oreo – or three. "Your body is designed to make healthy milk," says Laura Viehmann, M.D., clinical instructor in pediatrics at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, in Providence. Because your baby gets first dibs on the nutrients your system stores, eating well is not so much about producing quality milk as it is the key to maintaining your own health and energy. If your plate's not brimming with veggies, fill in nutritional gaps by taking a prenatal vitamin, which often has higher levels of calcium, vitamin D, and iron than a multi.

You can welcome a fair amount of caffeine, about two cups of coffee or one 12-ounce caffeinated soda, back into the fold, Dr. Viehmann says.

2. You can drink in moderation.

A little bit of drinking can be okay. But time your cocktail consumption carefully because your milk-alcohol level equals your blood-alcohol level, according to Philadelphia-based Monell Chemical Senses Center researcher Julie Mennella, Ph.D., who studies alcohol's effects on lactation.

"If you have a buzz, it's still in your milk," says Mennella, who recommends waiting at least three hours after your last sip of alcohol to breastfeed. If your baby needs a feeding within that three-hour time frame, use stored breast milk or formula. And to ensure your milk supply doesn't diminish, pump and dump: Pump at the scheduled feeding time and dump the alcohol-tainted milk down the drain.

You'll want to avoid alcohol if you're having problems building a milk supply, even though traditional wisdom suggests that beer helps produce breast milk. "Contrary to folklore, it disrupts the hormones of lactation," Mennella says. "Women who drink produce less milk."

3. Your belly may feel a bit crampy.

"It felt like bad menstrual cramps and got worse with each baby," says Rebecca Glassberg, of Teaneck, New Jersey, mom to 6-week-old Eli, 2-year-old Talia, and 4-year-old Jonah. "Luckily, it only lasted a few days." What's going on? "The same hormone responsible for triggering milk letdown, oxytocin, causes your uterus to shrink back to normal, which reduces the risk for uterine bleeding," says American Baby advisor Laura Jana, M.D., pediatrician and author of Heading Home With Your Newborn."Although it's uncomfortable, cramping is a sign that your body is healing properly." Some experts believe the pain may increase with subsequent pregnancies because your uterus stretches more each time.

4. Your milk doesn't look like cow's milk.

It won't look the same day to day, either. That's because breast milk's composition changes to meet your baby's nutritional needs, Dr. Jana says. At first, you'll produce a sticky, yellowish-white colostrum that's rich in protein. In a few days, when your milk supply comes in, it will contain two parts, which might separate in the fridge: Foremilk is thin, watery, and may appear pale blue; hindmilk, which has more fat, will be slightly thicker and creamier.

5. Your breasts may leak – a lot.

Blame it on those hormones again. "Anything that makes you think of your baby, like saying her name, talking about her, or even hearing another baby cry, causes your body to release oxytocin," says Dr. Viehmann. The hormone helps you bond with your baby, but it also turns on the sprinklers when you least expect it. "I remember being out with my girlfriends, and I soaked through my shirt. I was so embarrassed that I had to keep my jacket on the rest of the night," says Michelle Regoso, of Flushing, New York, mom to 2-year-old Zoe and 5-year-old Aiden. Wearing nursing pads can help sop up leakage.

6. Nursing induces sleep

You've probably heard that babies fall asleep while feeding, but did you know that sleep-deprived moms nod off, too? "When the body releases the hormone oxytocin, it has a calming effect that allows nursing moms to relax," says Amy Spangler, R.N., I.B.C.L.C., president of babygooroo.com and author of Breastfeeding: A Parent's Guide. "That's your body taking care of itself: Knowing the importance of sleep, the oxytocin effect is one more example of how breastfeeding protects the body."

7. Sex may be less than stellar.

When you're ready to do the deed again, you may discover that it's, well, different. "Estrogen levels tend to be lower in nursing moms, which can cause vaginal dryness," says Jessica Goldman, a certified nurse-midwife in Brooklyn. Keep a bottle of lube in your night table. Another potential sore spot: your breasts, which you may not want touched due to sensitivity or fear that you'll spray. "This is a time for your husband to focus on other areas," says Heidi Raykeil, coauthor of Love in the Time of Colic: The New Parents' Guide to Getting It On Again. "Take it slow and have fun exploring. Tell him what feels good and what doesn't." To declare your breasts a no-fly zone (or to control leaking), wear a bra during sex.

8. Nursing can be boring.

Feedings can last as long as an hour, and babies need to be fed every couple of hours at first. Repetitive? You bet. It's fine to interrupt the monotony by checking email or catching up on your DVR queue while you nurse, but resist the temptation to do so at night. "Change the baby, feed him, then put him down, but don't turn on any lights or TV," suggests Eileen Murphy, a registered lactation consultant in Chicago. You want to orient your baby to day and night. Too much stimulation in the wee hours can get him wired up.

9. Breastfeeding might hurt.

"Your nipples may feel irritated at first because they've never had that degree of stimulation, but if you're writhing in pain, you might have a problem with the latch," Dr. Jana says. Talk to your OB, so she can rule out mastitis or blocked ducts and recommend a lactation consultant. "The first few days after my son's birth were agony," says Jen Geller, of Scarsdale, New York, mom to 3-month-old Will. "He'd clamp onto my nipple so hard that I could stand up and he'd probably still be attached. A lactation consultant showed me how to correct the latch and my nipples healed within days."

Breast pumps can also leave you hurting if you use them incorrectly. "Some moms make the mistake of putting the pump on too high a setting, thinking it will save time," Dr. Jana says. You're pumping, not blow-drying your hair! "Start with the lowest setting and increase it to a comfortable level," she adds. Use a purified lanolin product, like Lansinoh HPA Lanolin, to soothe nipples after feeding or pumping.

10. There's no need to fear teeth

Some nursing moms are afraid of being bitten, so they call it quits once baby's first tooth arrives. But babies can't bite when suckling. A curious baby may nip you after she's done eating, but if you pay attention to her cues, you can avoid being nibbled.

"If your baby does it once, take her off (the breast), and that negative reinforcement usually takes care of the problem," Beck says.

11. You probably won't get your period

Many moms enjoy an unexpected perk while exclusively breastfeeding: They don't menstruate. "Prolactin, which is stimulated by suckling, can inhibit your cycle," says pediatrician Jack Newman, M.D., author of The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers (Three Rivers Press). "If mothers breastfeed exclusively for more than one year, they often won't get their periods for an average of 14 months."

Here's the rub: You can get pregnant again without having your period, so ask your doctor for an effective birth-control method that won't decrease your milk supply, such as condoms or the copper IUD. (Nursing moms should avoid estrogen-containing birth control.)

12. Nursing can make you bolder

Breastfeeding moms are more likely to stand up for their babies' rights, according to a recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the experience doesn't leave them feeling rattled. For example, defending your baby from a rude stranger could be considered stressful, but breastfeeding moms had significantly lower blood pressure readings than moms who bottle-fed their babies.

"Breastfeeding increases the body's threshold for stress, likely through oxytocin and prolactin levels, making moms more stress-resistant," says Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook, Ph.D., one of the study's authors.

13. Your baby runs the show

Your milk supply increases and decreases based on your baby's demand for nourishment, so frequent breastfeeding sessions help bolster a strong supply. This nifty feature of nursing also ensures that your baby will have enough to eat as her appetite increases.

Your baby can also jumpstart your milk let-down reflex; when your body recognizes cues, such as hearing your baby cry, it lets the milk flow. In fact, some working moms record their babies' I'm-getting-hungry cries to help them pump more efficiently at the office.

"The sound relaxes moms," Beck says. "Even seeing pictures of your baby helps moms unwind, and that milk will start flowing."

14. Your husband might love it

You may feel like a dairy cow, but many men find their wife stepping into her new role as mother incredibly sexy – and what could be more maternal than feeding your baby? He won't hate the extra weight you're carrying up top either. "My boobs got so big while breastfeeding that all my husband wanted to do was touch them," says Dayana Martinez, of Miami, mom to 6-week-old Luca and 2-year-old Milos.

15. You may not be into it – and that's okay

The very best thing you can do to set yourself up for a successful breastfeeding experience is take a prenatal nursing class at your community center or hospital. "Many parents take a birth class but, if they're lucky, spend no more than 24 hours giving birth," Murphy says. "You're going to spend much longer nursing, so investing your time in a course while you're pregnant will pay off hugely."

Still, breastfeeding may not work out for you. Claire Fuzesi, of Old Greenwich, Connecticut, had every intention of nursing her now 15-month-old twin girls, Chloe and Hannah, but things didn't go according to plan. "My girls were six weeks premature so they had trouble latching, and I found myself bonding with a pump every few hours," she says. "Once they were able to breastfeed, I had blocked ducts. Within a few weeks, I gave up. I felt zero guilt. Instead, I was relieved that I could finally relax with my babies."

Many moms who decide not to nurse experience backlash from friends and family, but try to tune them out. "It's best for anyone confronted with breastfeeding obstacles to get support before giving up, but those moms who do end up using formula shouldn't feel guilty!" Dr. Jana says.

16. Breastfeeding can be complete bliss

"There was nothing like the feeling of my child relaxing into my arms while she nursed, says Katie Shur, of Queens, New York, whose daughter, Maya, is 21 months. "I felt absolute peace and quiet." The oxytocin surge ushers in a cascade of feel-good emotions, says Joan Younger Meek, M.D., a pediatrician and editor-in-chief of The American Academy of Pediatrics New Mother's Guide to Breastfeeding. And the release of prolactin, another hormone involved in milk production, makes you feel drowsy when you're done. Can you say naptime?

Updated by Lisa Fields
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