Breastfeeding can be a beautiful way to bond with your baby and provide them nourishment and health benefits. But it can also come with challenges and struggles that are difficult to navigate. During National Breastfeeding Week, I want to share my tips with you and break some myths about what many are taught.
When our first child was born, I was in my final year of medical school. I thought I would be well prepared to start breastfeeding based on my medical background. Boy was I wrong! I quickly realized that breastfeeding didn’t come nearly as “natural” as I had envisioned. There were so many things I didn’t know… and so many things I was taught wrong.
Here were some of the things I had wrong (and now know better)!
- Breastfeeding is “natural”: Babies are born with a natural instinct to breastfeed, including rooting and sucking reflexes, but this does not mean that they will naturally latch and start to feed perfectly from the start. Breastfeeding for both mother and infant is a new experience that takes lots of practice and patience to perfect. It also often takes support and guidance from trained professionals to help it be a successful experience.
- Pain is a normal part of breastfeeding: While many women do describe some mild discomfort when they first start to breastfeed, pain that persists throughout the feeding session is not normal. Nipples do not need to become “callused” or “hardened” to breastfeed. Pain is an indication that something needs to be corrected, such as the baby’s latch or a possible tongue tie. If you are experiencing pain while nursing, please seek professional support to help correct the source of the pain so that both you and baby can experience a rewarding breastfeeding journey.
- Formula is basically the same as breastmilk: The #1 goal is a healthy and fed baby. Formula can accomplish this goal, but that does not mean that breastfeeding does not have distinct advantages. Breastfeeding provides babies with immune benefits by transferring antibodies from mom to the infant. Breastfed babies have been found to have lower rates of asthma, obesity, respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, childhood leukemias and lymphomas, SIDS, and diabetes. It also provides lasting benefits for mom, including lower rates of breast cancer, obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.
- If my baby is nursing every 1-2 hours, I must not be making enough milk: The best indicator of whether you are making enough milk, is whether baby is growing well and gaining weight. Many infants “cluster feed”, where they nurse numerous times over a several hour period. This does not necessarily indicate a low supply. Oftentimes this is the baby’s natural instinct to feel secure in the closeness of mom, along with also naturally driving up mom’s milk supply by increasing the “demand” for milk. If you find your baby is in a period of cluster feeding, find a good Netflix series and nurse on. It will naturally boost your milk supply and also fill your baby with the nutrition they need.
- My baby is gassy because I ate broccoli: Babies are gassy creatures at baseline. Whether you are breastfeeding or not, babies tend to make large amounts of gas. This is due to the baby’s immature digestive system, not due to the foods that mom is consuming. Usually as the baby’s digest system matures, they process this gas better. In most cases, a tincture of time is the best cure for a baby’s gassiness, not an extreme diet overhaul.
- I must pump and dump after taking certain medications, drinking alcohol, having certain medical procedures done, and so on: “Pumping and dumping” is often unnecessary. Many medications, including antidepressants, antibiotics, and certain pain medications, are safe to continue to breastfeed while taking. Most medical procedures also do not require “pumping and dumping” after, including CT scans, MRIs, mammograms, dental procedures, local skin procedures, and even most surgeries. You also usually do not need to pump and dump after drinking an alcoholic beverage. Alcohol diffuses in and out of breastmilk at the same rate as it does in the bloodstream. Feed the baby just before you plan to drink an alcoholic beverage and then wait an hour or two after drinking before you feed the infant again. Just as your body clears alcohol from your bloodstream, the alcohol is also cleared from your breastmilk. Please contact your healthcare provider if you have questions regarding the safety of any medications or procedures while breastfeeding.
- I need to build up a large “freezer stash” before returning to work: The Instagram pictures of freezers full of breastmilk is something many nursing moms envy. But there are drawbacks to these massive freezer stashes. This amount of stored milk usually indicates a significant oversupply. While this may sound like an ideal problem to have, there are significant drawbacks with oversupply, including clogged ducts, mastitis, and feeling tethered to a breast pump. It can also make it more challenging for the infant to nurse due to engorgement and fast letdowns. In general, you don’t need more milk in the freezer than what you would need to feed the infant for your first day back at work. While at work that first day, you will then be pumping the milk you would use to feed the infant for the following day.
- As the baby ages, the bottle sizes should also increase: Between the ages of 1-6 months, breastfed babies on average consume between 24-32 ounces daily. After the age of 6 months, once the baby is taking more solid foods, this amount gradually decreases. On average, most breastfed babies will take 3-4 ounce bottles every 2-4 hours. Breastfed babies actually don’t need larger bottles as they age.
- The benefits of breastfeeding start to wane after 6 months (or one year): While the fat/ protein content in breastmilk does change as a baby ages, there are still significant benefits to breastfeeding beyond six months (or a year) of age. The immunologic benefits continue the entire time a child is breastfeeding (see point #3). Even small amounts of breastfeeding (such as 4 ounces per day) has been shown to have health benefits for mom and baby. It also allows you to continue the bond that you have created while nursing.
- You can’t breastfeed when you’re pregnant: In general, it is usually safe to continue to breastfeed while pregnant. Your body is able to provide adequate nutrients to both the fetus growing in your uterus and to the child that is nursing. Your breastmilk continues to provide nutritional benefit to your nursing child, but you may start to notice a decrease in your milk supply as your pregnancy progresses. Uterine contractions are also possible if you are breastfeeding while pregnant. If you have a history of miscarriages or high-risk pregnancies, be sure to consult with your provider about their recommendations regarding breastfeeding during your pregnancy.
Learn from my mistakes and don’t believe all the wives’ tales you may have been taught about breastfeeding. Be sure to contact your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns specific to your own breastfeeding journey.
-Dr. Danika Peterson, MD, CLC