How to Breastfeed: Nursing 101

Breastfeeding may be "natural" but that doesn't mean it comes naturally. Learn how to breastfeed your baby with these tips, tricks, and steps.

nursing parent shows how to breastfeed newborn
Photo: Getty

While parents have been breastfeeding since the beginning of time, that doesn't mean that it's something that happens on its own. Nursing can be tough in the beginning, particularly if you've never breastfed a baby before. What's more, each child can present their own unique challenges. What worked with one baby, for example, may not apply to another. The good news is that with patience, persistence, and lots of support, many parents learn how to breastfeed. Success, if you will, is possible.

Here's everything you need to know about nursing, from how to hold your baby to how to get them to latch on.

Getting Started with Breastfeeding

It's a good idea to try breastfeeding in the hospital as soon as you can, preferably with a nurse or lactation consultant on hand. Though a newborn knows instinctively how to suck, getting their lips—and your nipple—in the right position may take some trial and error. The nipple may slip out of baby's mouth, for example. Getting a strong "latch" may also be a problem.

That said, don't get discouraged. The nurses and lactation consultants can help you position your baby properly. And even if you don't get it right for several hours (or a whole day!), your baby won't starve. They are born with extra energy stores to get them through this phase.

How to Hold Your Nursing Baby

There's more than one way to nurse a baby, but the best way is the one most comfortable for both of you. Here are three simple ways to cradle baby.

  • The Cradle Hold: Lay baby lengthwise across your abdomen, using one hand to support their head and the other their bottom.
  • The Football Hold: Place baby beside you face up and lengthwise. Lay them along your arm and guide their head to your breast. If you've had a C-section, you may find this hold more comfortable.
  • The Lying-Down: Lay down in bed with your little one, with you on your right side and baby on their left. With your free hand, move baby's mouth toward the nipple closest to the bed and circle your other arm around him. Note: Your baby's mouth should be at the same height or slightly lower than your nipples.

Breastfeeding pillows and carefully folded blankets and towels can also help you prop baby in a comfortable position.

Getting Baby to Latch

Any good lactation consultant will tell you: Latching is everything. Here's how to do it:

  1. Position your baby on their side so they are directly facing you, with their belly touching yours. Next, prop up the baby with a pillow, if necessary, and hold them to your breast; don't lean over.
  2. Place your thumb and fingers around your areola.
  3. Tilt your baby's head back slightly and tickle her lips with your nipple until they open their mouth wide.
  4. Help your baby "scoop" your breast into their mouth by placing their lower jaw on first, well below the nipple.
  5. Tilt baby's head forward, placing their upper jaw deeply on the breast. Make sure they take the entire nipple and at least 1 1/2 inches of the areola in their mouth.

How to Breastfeed Your Newborn

Every two hours or each time your baby cries, you should put them to your breast to suck. To help baby figure out where lunch is coming from rub their cheek with your nipple or finger. This will get them to turn toward the breast.

The first few times baby eats, each nursing session may be as short as five minutes or as long as 45. This is normal. Once baby has worked out that you're their source of milk and coordinated their latch, suck, and swallow, they'll likely nurse for 20 minutes on each breast. If they've been on one breast for a long time, you can break their latch and switch them to the other side.

Everything You Need to Know About Breast Milk

Baby's first meal isn't milk, it's colostrum, a yellowish liquid nursing parents emit that is rich in antibodies and boosts your child's immune system. Your real milk will come in a few days after you give birth. Don't worry; you'll know when it's there! Your breasts may feel like they're full of rocks, or that they're about to burst. This is called engorgement. The good news is that your hungry baby can really help you out; the best way to relieve engorgement is to nurse often. Drink a large glass of water every time you nurse, eat well, and take your prenatal vitamins.

Of course, a major concern for new parents and, particularly, nursing parents is whether baby is getting enough to eat; after all, you can't count the ounces. If you hear and see your baby swallowing, they're drinking. And if they are filling plenty of diapers with urine and soft, yellow stools, at least eight a day, they're getting nourishment. However, you should call your pediatrician if your baby exhibits these signs:

  • Your baby stops feeding after 10 minutes or less.
  • Your baby is frequently fussy and lethargic.
  • Your baby's skin is yellowing.
  • Your baby's stools are hard and dark.

How to Alleviate Engorgement

Even if you nurse often, sometimes your breasts still get engorged. It's hard for a baby to latch on to a rock-hard breast, so here's how to relieve that painful feeling and get the milk flowing.

  1. Stay cool. Applying ice packs or bags of frozen peas to your breasts is one way of easing the pain. Another tried-and-true remedy? Cabbage leaves! Keep a large head of green cabbage in your refrigerator or freezer. When you feel sore, peel off a leaf, stick it in your bra, and voila! An instant breast-shaped ice pack.
  2. Take a warm shower. Heat promotes the flow of milk. You'll lose a little milk in the process, but if you're nursing regularly, there's more where that came from.
  3. Express yourself. Expressing a small amount of milk manually or with a pump can help soften things up so baby can latch on more easily.
  4. Lie down. Lying on your stomach relieves the pull of gravity and, for some, soothes the pain.

Breastfeeding Supplies

If you're breastfeeding, these supplies should be on your shopping list—as they will help make nursing easier, which will increase your odds of nursing longer.

  • Several supportive nursing bras. Look for styles without an underwire. The wire can dig into your milk duct and interfere with milk production.
  • Lanolin ointment designed for nursing parents. It helps soothe sore nipples.
  • A nursing pillow. These clever, inexpensive pillows save your back and help you position baby more easily.
  • Nursing pads. You'll have far less laundry to do if you place these absorbent pads in your bra to catch leaks.
  • A breast pump. There are many kinds, from handheld to electric. All of them help relieve engorgement and may even allow you to prepare some reserve bottles so you can leave your little one with a sitter for a few hours.

When to Worry

Your breasts have never been subjected to the jaws of a hungry newborn before, so for most, it hurts, especially in the beginning. But cracked, bleeding nipples and constant pain are a signal that you need some help; your baby may not be latched on correctly. A lactation consultant can help correct your baby's latch through positioning and exercises. They can also offer advice on how to heal your nipples.

Sometimes, nursing pain is caused by an infection called mastitis, which occurs when bacteria enters the breast and multiplies in a milk duct. If you have it, the infected area will become hot and red, and you'll also suffer flulike symptoms. Nursing, safe antibiotics, and warm compresses help heal the infection.

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