The Basics of Breastfeeding

Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

Woman breastfeeding

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Just like pregnancy and childbirth, you may have heard other people's stories about their experiences with breastfeeding. It worked out beautifully for one person and went horribly wrong for another. You can certainly end up feeling overwhelmed by all of the information you're getting. So, let's demystify the process by focusing on the basics of breastfeeding. Here's what you need to know to get started.

The Preparation of Your Breasts During Pregnancy

During pregnancy, the milk-making glands in your breasts begin to grow and develop. Hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and prolactin play a major role in preparing your breasts to feed your baby.

As your pregnancy goes on, your breasts will get bigger. Your areola, the circular area surrounding your nipple, will become darker. These are good signs that the hormones are doing their jobs and your body is preparing to produce breast milk for your baby.

When Should You Start Breastfeeding?

You should start breastfeeding as soon as possible after your baby is born. Ideally, you should try your first breastfeeding within the first hour after birth.

Most babies are very alert and interested in nursing in the first two hours of life. Even if they are only able to feed in short spurts before getting tired, that might be just enough for them early on, and these attempts will prompt your breasts to make more milk.

You may have a lot of concerns about breastfeeding your newborn. Many hospitals and birthing centers have lactation consultants on hand to help guide you through the early days, and midwives and doulas are often trained to help new parents get the hang of breastfeeding. Some common questions you may have include:

Especially at first, your baby will likely feed briefly but very often: This is normal and will help you establish a good milk supply. As the days go on, your baby's breastfeeding pattern will signal to your body how much breast milk to make. Your milk supply will naturally adjust to their demands.

Breastfeeding and Latching On

The way your baby latches on to your breast to breastfeed is very important. A good breastfeeding latch means your baby will be able to remove the milk from your breasts efficiently, which should keep your milk supply steady and plentiful. It also helps you avoid sore nipples.

Guiding a newborn to latch correctly may take some trial and error. To latch properly, your baby should be latching onto your entire nipple as well as some of your areola. If their lips are turned outward (like fish lips) and their chin and nose are touching the breast, those are good signs they've latched on well. If your baby has taken just your nipple into their mouth, gently use a finger to break the suction between their mouth and your breast and try to reposition them.

Breastfeeding Positions

An effective breastfeeding position encourages a good breastfeeding latch. You can choose to breastfeed in any position that you feel comfortable. You can learn the common breastfeeding positions (or "holds") to see what you like or find your own.

For newborns who have trouble latching, many breastfeeding parents find the laid-back position or cross-cradle position to be helpful. However, it's a good idea to try a few different positions so that you can alternate them. By changing your breastfeeding holds from feeding to feeding, your baby can drain milk from different areas of your breast.

The Production and Stages of Breast Milk

Breast milk is produced based on supply and demand. Basically, the more frequently and effectively your baby breastfeeds, the more milk you'll make .  Your breast milk will go through three main stages in the first weeks of life:

  • Days 0-5: During the first few days of breastfeeding, you'll mainly make colostrum. It has a yellow or orange tint and is thick, rich, and filled with essential nutrients and immunoglobulins. You won't make a lot of colostrum, but it will fill your just-born baby's belly with everything they need.
  • Days 5-14: Your breast milk will increase in amount or "come in" around the third or fourth day. At this time, your breasts will feel much fuller and heavier as your breast milk changes from colostrum to transitional milk (a crossover between colostrum and mature milk).
  • Days 14 onward: By around the second week, your breasts will produce mature milk. This milk has a thinner consistency at the start of a feeding and is thicker and more nutrient-dense at the end.

When it's time to breastfeed, you may feel your breasts filling up. Then, a few minutes into the feeding, you may feel a release. This release of breast milk is called the let-down reflex or milk ejection. The let-down reflex is also responsible for your leaking breasts when your baby cries or it's close to feeding time. It's a normal physiologic response.

How Can You Tell if Your Baby Is Getting Enough Breast Milk?

While it's a very common concern for many first-time moms, it's rare that a person will not be able to make enough breast milk for her baby. If your baby is latching on correctly, and breastfeeding every 2 to 3 hours, your body should make enough breast milk.

To be sure, you can keep an eye out for the signs that your baby is getting enough milk. They should be:

What Supplies Do You Need to Breastfeed?

One of the great things about breastfeeding is that you already have everything you need to breastfeed successfully: your breasts and your baby. You don't have to buy any additional supplies, but some pregnant parents swear by them.

There are certainly a variety of helpful breastfeeding products available. If your baby has trouble latching on, you can try breast shells or nipple shields. Many breastfeeding parents appreciate nursing pads to help protect clothes from leaking breasts during the let-down process. For breastfeeding on the go, many people rely on a great nursing bra.

If you have to deliver by cesarean section, you can still breastfeed. Breastfeeding after a c-section may be a bit more challenging as your body heals, but it's definitely achievable and healthy for you and your baby. With a little support to help you position your baby comfortably, you may be able to breastfeed once you are settled in the recovery room.

What About Pumping?

Many breastfeeding people use a breast pump. Some occasionally pump to relieve breast engorgement or to give their baby an occasional bottle, while others regularly pump because they have to return to work. Some people decide to pump exclusively. 

If you decide to pump, look into buying a breast pump and storage bags or containers that work for your lifestyle.

Taking Care of Yourself

Recovering from childbirth while breastfeeding can be exhausting. If you have other children, it can be even harder. But to take care of your baby, you must take care of yourself, too.

It's essential that you take the time to heal and rest. That includes taking naps to counter postpartum fatigue, nourishing yourself with healthy food, staying hydrated, and making time for gentle exercise.

The Stages of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding changes as your baby grows. From round-the-clock nursing sessions during the newborn stage to introducing solid foods along with breast milk, there are several stages of breastfeeding

Everyone has a different approach for when it's time to wean their baby. There is no right or wrong time to transition from breastfeeding, so you should do what feels right for you. Talking to your doctor or midwife, your child's pediatrician, and other parents can help you gather the information you need to make the final phase of breastfeeding as sweet and satisfying for you and your baby as the beginning.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. (2011). New Mother’s Guide To Breastfeeding. Bantam Books. New York.
  • Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. (2011). Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Seventh Edition.  Mosby.
  • Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. (2014). Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning.