How Labor Choices and Paths Affect Breastfeeding

Woman Getting Breastfeeding Help

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Birth affects breastfeeding in many ways that most families don't even think about. Often they think of the birth as being totally separate from the breastfeeding experience. But how you give birth can affect how your baby nurses. Here are some of the most common ways that various birth practices interfere with breastfeeding.

Length of Labor

The length of labor is really out of your control. But we do know that babies actually help during the labor process. So a very long labor or very short labor may actually increase breastfeeding difficulty. This can be because of the exhaustion you and baby feel after birth, even for short labor because they can be quite hard. This is true even if no other interventions are used.

Medications in Labor

Medications you accept in labor can hinder breastfeeding, but not always. Obviously, some mother/baby couplets sail through after giving birth with medication, particularly epidural anesthesia, without a hitch. But some studies show, as moms report, that other babies are less likely to nurse. While using narcotics for labor may increase this problem, epidurals are not immune. Fewer doses, less time on medications and other factors may or may not help.

Early Separation of Mom and Newborn

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that you breastfeed beginning immediately after birth and preferably within 30 minutes. This is because your newborn has a very quiet, alert state of mind at this point where breastfeeding is imprinted on a baby's brain very well. Skin-to-skin contact can really help facilitate this process. When mom and baby are separated during this period, it can have a detrimental effect on breastfeeding.


Suctioning is a practice that is questionable in a vaginal birth, particularly where the perineum is intact, though it's one that persists. Deep, vigorous suctioning can irritate the baby's mouth, leaving it sore. This can mean that your baby does not wish to nurse. Ask for minimal suctioning and gentle suctioning.


This really falls under early separation, though there is some research that shows the smell of the amniotic fluid can help babies nurse. This might be a reason to delay the bathing of a newborn.

Cesarean Section

Cesarean section has been shown to cause a delay in milk production. While not every mother will experience it, it is normal and you should not be concerned. Early, frequent pumping sessions may help with this problem. A cesarean after labor begins may also be less likely to experience this than a planned cesarean before labor.

Induction of Labor

Induction of labor, because of the potential of added intervention, can cause difficulties in breastfeeding.

Premature Birth

A baby who is born early may have more trouble nursing either because of a lack of mature sucking ability or other confounding medical issues. Pumping breast milk for the baby is very beneficial until you can get them to the breast.

Multiples, Twins, and More

The greater the number of babies, the harder the breastfeeding can be. When you add the fact that many multiples, even twins, are often born early, that can influence breastfeeding as well. However, breastfeeding multiples is often very successful.

Other Interventions

Interventions like forceps and vacuums can also interfere with breastfeeding.

Overcoming Issues

If you feel like you are having problems or issues with breastfeeding, because of labor interventions or something else, get help early and often.

  • When in doubt, start pumping your breasts with a hospital-grade pump. If you haven't had a good feed by four hours postpartum, start the pumping every three to four hours until the problem is resolved; this will help protect your milk supply.
  • Do not use bottles or supplements. If you need to give baby feedings away from the breast, use an alternative like a cup, syringe, or finger feeding. Supplements should be last resort with pumped breast milk from you or donated breast milk next.
  • Skin to skin with your baby can help, no matter what is going on.
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By Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.