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Breastfeeding a Newborn: A How to Guide

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The moment you become a mom is an amazing experience. It’s beautiful, awe-inspiring, and magical. The next moment, however, is terrifying. It’s at that moment you realize that you have to figure out how to breastfeed. And not only that, but breastfeed a newborn.

Now some people might tell you that breastfeeding is completely natural and that it’s easy to do. Those people are jerks and they are totally lying to you.

Don’t get me wrong, breastfeeding is natural. It is the body’s way of providing nutrients for the helpless little baby that you carried around for nine, very long, months.

Your body is smart. It knows that your baby still needs for you to provide for him even though he is no longer safely in your womb.

The problem is that breastfeeding isn’t always easy.

Some people, like myself, end up not being able to have a typical breastfeeding relationship. My kid just couldn’t figure out nursing, so I became an exclusive pumper instead.

Even if you do manage to have a successful nursing experience, it isn’t always an easy start.

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Think about it, you’re trying to figure out how to be a mom while your baby is trying to figure out how to be a person. It’s natural to hit a few bumps down the road.

Thankfully though, there are some things that you can do to help get your breastfeeding journey off to the right start. And figuring out how to breastfeed a newborn is the first step.

(This post contains affiliate links. That means that if you buy something through one of my links I’ll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. I will never suggest a product or service that I don’t use and love myself because that’s just wrong. If you like reading legal mumbo-jumbo then you can check out my disclosure policy HERE.)

How to Prepare to Breastfeed a Newborn

Getting started off on the right foot in your breastfeeding journey is so vital for your success. One of the best ways that you can do that is to take a breastfeeding class.

If you can’t get to one in person (because who has the time for that??) then I strongly suggest taking the Breastfeeding Course by Milkology. It is EXTREMELY informative and you can go through it at your own pace, which is amazing.

The entire course only takes 90 minutes. You can find an hour and a half, right?

Give Milkology a try. 

When to Start Breastfeeding Your Newborn

In an ideal situation, your baby will be born with no complications, and you will begin breastfeeding almost immediately. Preferably within the first hour or two after birth.

Breastfeeding your newborn immediately after birth helps to signal to your body that you do, in fact, need to start producing breastmilk, but it also has some extra benefits as well.

Benefits of Breastfeeding a Newborn

Breastfeeding a newborn immediately after birth has several key benefits both for you and the baby.

  • Comfort for the baby

Your baby will have just gone through a terrifying experience. Certainly the most difficult thing he’s ever done so far. I can’t even image what it’s like to be forced out of your warm, little ball of goo and shoved through a very small hole to a new world that is too bright, too loud, and has too many smells.

That would be overwhelming for anyone, not just your baby.

Having some quality skin-to-skin time with you while being fed is an amazing way to reassure your baby that he is safe, and loved, and everything will be alright.

  • Begins the Healing Process

Breastfeeding your newborn early on, also helps begin your healing process.

I don’t know if you know this yet or not, but there is a LOT of stuff going on when a woman gives birth to a baby. The number of hormones rushing through the body alone is staggering.

All of those hormones running a muck throughout your system have several different purposes, but they don’t always rush off to their jobs very quickly. Not without some help anyway.

When you begin breastfeeding your newborn for the first time, your body will flood with oxytocin. Oxytocin is the “love” hormone. It is the hormone that actually causes your contractions to happen in order to push your baby out.

It is impossible to give birth to your baby without the love component being present. I find that very interesting.

The other interesting thing, is that oxytocin that gets released when you’re breastfeeding still causes your uterus to contract even after birth. Though it isn’t necessarily comfortable, it’s a good thing.

Your uterus spent nine months stretching out to hold your baby, now it needs to shrink back down to its normal size. Breastfeeding helps speed up that process.

Isn’t the body cool?!

  • Starts the Bonding Process

Now this is a little weird, and I am not convinced that you have to directly nurse your baby in order to bond with him. I was an exclusive pumper, remember? That didn’t seem to stop my bonding.

Some people swear by it though, so I’m going to throw it in.

All of that oxytocin running through your system, and the comfort factor that breastfeeding supplies your newborn, can jump start the mother-child bonding experience.

Though I say if you really want to start bonding with your child, then check out this list of ways that you can start bonding with your baby while you’re still pregnant. It’s pretty cool and they really work.

What if There are Birth Complications?

If you run into problems during your labor and delivery, then breastfeeding immediately could be a little tricky.

  • Breastfeeding after a Cesarean

If you have to undergo a standard cesarean section (or c-section) with an epidural or spinal anesthesia, then you should still be able to have skin-to-skin and thus begin breastfeeding within an hour or two after birth. Possibly even while you are still in the operating room.

If they have to put you under completely with general anesthesia for the operation, then you and the baby will most likely be sleepy for a while afterwards, but you will be able to begin breastfeeding once it wears off.

  • Having a Premature Baby

If you have a preemie, especially if your baby is very early, then you will most likely not be able to directly nurse your child. At least not in the beginning.

Preemies are typically very small and your baby’s mouth could be too small to fit around your nipple let alone be able to actually provide the suction to get the milk moving.

If that’s the case, and you want to still provide breast milk for your baby, then you should begin pumping.

The key to bringing in your breast milk and maintaining your supply is to pump frequently and to empty fully. 8-12 times a day is what you should shoot for in the first few weeks after your baby is born.

A good rule of thumb is to pump as often as your baby is eating.

It is possible to have a successful exclusive pumping journey from birth. The key is preparation.

The Properties of Breast Milk

Breast milk is a living thing. It is constantly changing and evolving to adapt itself to the changing environment and your baby’s growing needs. This is one of the biggest benefits of breastfeeding rather than formula feeding.

Knowing that you are giving your baby the perfect source of nutrients can really help to ease your mind.

Breast milk contains over 200 known ingredients that cannot be replicated or duplicated by formula. Things like vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes, antibodies, hormones, prebiotics, probiotics, carbohydrates, fats and many other active biological compounds.

Studies done on breastfed babies versus formula fed babies show that breastfed babies tend to get sick less often than their formula fed counterparts. They are also better protected from ailments like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and even cancer as they get older. How cool is that?!

Hormones

When your baby is born, your body is flooded with oxytocin (the love hormone). This increased level of oxytocin in your system jump starts your milk production by activating your prolactin (milk producing) hormone.

Prolactin and oxytocin work hand in hand to help your body make breast milk.

For the first 12 weeks or so, your breast milk supply is going to be primarily hormone based. Your body really wants to make milk because it knows that your new baby needs to drink milk to survive.

After 12 weeks, your hormones level out some and your milk supply becomes more supply and demand based. The first 12 weeks are the most important for your milk supply. Putting in a little extra work in the beginning means a lot less work later on.

Composition

Breast milk is 88% water. You will see me mention several times the importance of staying hydrated while pumping and that is why.

If your body doesn’t have enough water then you are going to feel like crap and your milk supply is going to suffer for it. Though you do not have to go overboard with your water intake, you should be drinking closer to 100 ounces a day rather than the typical 64 ounces that is suggested for most adults.

I personally always shot for a gallon (128 ounces) to be on the safe side. I would just fill up a gallon sized pitcher and refill my cup from it throughout the day. Having a visual really helped me to remember to drink enough water without having to count how many ounces I had had.

Calories

Your body requires approximately 20 calories to produce 1 ounce of breast milk. While that may not seem like a lot, it can really add up over the course of a day.

If for instance you are producing 25 ounces of milk a day, your body is burning an extra 500 calories just on milk production. Because of this, it is important not to start cutting calories while you are breastfeeding.

Many new moms are worried about losing the baby weight after giving birth, and I get it, I’ve been there, but cutting calories will lower your milk supply faster than it will lower your waist size.

Don’t worry, there are things that you can do to lose weight while breastfeeding that we will get into later.

Colostrum

Because of the small size of a newborn’s stomach, the first milk that you will produce will be a thick, sticky, yellow milk called colostrum.

Colostrum is the ideal milk for newborns because it is highly concentrated with more fat and calories than more mature milk for tiny babies. It also acts as a laxative for your baby to help push the thick, tar-like substance called meconium out of your baby’s intestinal tract. That stuff is just weird!

Do not be alarmed if you are only producing a few milliliters at a time. Your baby’s stomach is very small and you won’t produce much colostrum because your baby doesn’t need that much. Once your mature milk comes in, then your supply will begin to increase.

Mature Milk

Between 2-5 days after birth, though sometimes as late at 7 days, your milk will change from the thick colostrum to the thinner, white, mature milk that you will produce the rest of your breastfeeding journey.

This milk will be less concentrated than the colostrum and will have a higher water content.

When your milk “comes in”, your breasts will most likely become engorged and painful. Don’t be surprised, this is completely normal.

My milk came in my third night postpartum. I went to bed completely normal, and then I woke up a few hours later with coconuts in my bra.

Keep in mind that it can be difficult for a newborn to latch well onto a fully engorged boob. It’s kind of like sucking on a rock.

If your baby is having trouble, I would suggest hand expressing or pumping a small amount out to help your baby. Doing this will make you both more comfortable.

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Until your milk regulates, you will probably feel that engorgement each time that your breasts are full and need to breastfeed.

I say probably because everyone is different. There are some women that never feel engorged, but that is the exception, not the rule.

Let Down

A let down, or the milk ejection reflex, is when your milk travels down the milk ducts and out of the breasts. It is typically triggered by stimulation to the breasts such as by a breastfeeding baby.

You may feel a tingling sensation in your breasts, you may become thirsty all of a sudden, you may start leaking, there may be a sudden fullness to your breasts, or you may feel nothing at all.

Some women never feel their let downs and some women have different signs and symptoms of one. Everyone is different.

I just know that for me I was really shocked when my nipples would randomly start to tingle. I had no idea what it was. It’s completely normal though.

Foremilk Versus Hindmilk

When a woman begins a breastfeeding session, whether by nursing or pumping, the initial milk that is released during a letdown is called the foremilk.

It is very high in water to help quench the baby’s thirst and entice him to continue drinking. It is very easy to remove because of this and only contains about 1% fat content.

As the breast is drained, the milk becomes thicker. It is no longer the watery foremilk, but rather the fatty hindmilk.

This milk has a fat content of 5% or more. It is this fatty milk that will keep your baby full and satisfied the longest. As long as your breasts are being completely emptied at each breastfeeding session, then you should not have to worry about your fat content.

Though you may leak in between your let downs, or throughout the day in general, your let down is what will give you the most milk.

Does Breastfeeding Hurt?

For your entire life up until the moment when you had your baby, your boobs were just for looks. They didn’t really have a purpose. Once your baby is born though, that all changes.

Your boobs go from being simple aesthetics to being thrown to the wolves and told to fend for themselves.

That’s probably a little extreme of an analogy, but you get the idea.

It isn’t uncommon for breastfeeding to hurt a little bit in the beginning. Breastfeeding a newborn is a tricky thing.

Your nipples will have to take time to get used to their new role in life and your baby has to get used to the proper way of extracting the milk from your breasts.

It will probably take at least two or three weeks for your nipples to get used to the act of breastfeeding.

So, while breastfeeding may be uncomfortable, it really shouldn’t hurt. If you have actual pain, then that is a pretty good indication that your newborn isn’t latching properly

What to do if Your Newborn isn’t Latching Correctly?

If your newborn is not latching properly, then that means that your nipple is not far enough back in his mouth. That is going to cause unnecessary pain for you, and it will also mean that your baby won’t be getting enough milk.

That’s just going to mean that you’ll have to endure the pain longer because your breastfeeding sessions will last so much longer. Don’t put yourself through that.

The secret to a good latch is to have your nipple pointing directly at your baby’s nose (nipple to nose, remember that). Then you want to entice your baby to open REALLY wide.

You can do this by gently rubbing your nipple across your baby’s nose or upper lip.

Once he has done that, then you can place him on your breast.

Always bring your baby to your breast rather than the other way around. You will be HORRIBLY uncomfortable if you are always sitting hunched in an awkward position while you’re trying to breastfeed.

When you put the baby on your breast, you don’t just want to have the nipple in his mouth, you want basically the entire areola (the dark area around your nipple) to be in there as well.

You should only be able to see a small amount of your areola if your baby is latched correctly. It also shouldn’t hurt.

Breastfeeding can be uncomfortable, but it isn’t supposed to hurt. Pain is a sign that something is wrong. Don’t just suffer through the pain and expect it to get better.

You can always ask to speak to a lactation consultant. Most hospitals will have one on staff. She will be able to help guide you into a proper latching position.

How Often Should You Breastfeed a Newborn?

Newborn babies have very tiny bellies. For that reason, you can expect to breastfeed a newborn baby 8-12 times a day. I know that number sounds like a lot, but that’s just the way it is. Your baby needs to eat.

Once your baby is a bit older and more effective at breastfeeding, then you will be able to drop some of those sessions (preferably the nighttime ones) without risking ruining your milk supply.

How Long is a Breastfeeding Session for a Newborn?

Most breastfeeding sessions for newborns take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes. If your baby is feeding substantially less than that, then you may want to verify that he is fully draining your breasts.

Not drinking long enough can lead to a foremilk/hindmilk imbalance and you don’t want that. You want your baby to get the fatty hindmilk to keep him full and to help him grow.

If your baby is taking substantially longer than that, then you should probably check to make sure that your baby is actually still drinking and not just using you as a pacifier.

It is common for babies to sometimes look like they are breastfeeding, when in fact they are actually just sucking for comfort. If it doesn’t bother you and you aren’t in any pain over it, then you can continue providing that comfort.

Just know that breaking that habit later could pose a problem.

Cluster Feedings

You will probably hear several times from every mom that you know that there is a “witching hour”. This time frame is typically in the evenings and it is definitely not just an hour.

Your baby will be fussy, upset, and will want to feed constantly. Welcome to the wonderful world of cluster feeding!

Due to the way that your milk-making hormones work, your breast milk production will be less in the evenings. It’s totally normal, and everyone hates it, but that’s what happens.

Your prolactin levels (the milk-making hormone) are at their highest between one and five in the morning and then they slowly taper off throughout the day.

The fact that your milk supply will be a little less in the evenings, and since your baby is trying to take in more calories to sustain longer sleeping sessions (this is a good thing), cluster feeding happens.

I have vivid memories of breastfeeding my son for several hours straight in the evenings, just switching from one boob to the next and then back again. He had a lot of trouble transferring milk, so that is not necessarily the case for every woman and her baby, but it is possible.

Your newborn wants to sleep. He wants to sleep through the night even if he isn’t physically capable yet. In order to do that though, he has to find a way to take in more calories so that he isn’t waking up hungry in two hours. So, he cluster feeds.

This is completely normal. There is nothing wrong with your baby. He’s just being a baby. Just roll with it until it passes. Cluster feeding thankfully doesn’t last forever.

Growth Spurts

Your newborn will go through several different growth spurts in his first few weeks of life. All of those growth spurts can affect how he acts.

Sometimes a growth spurt can cause him to sleep for longer stretches and to eat very little, or sometimes it can cause him to never sleep and only want the milk at every second of every day.

Either scenario is completely normal and completely unique to your baby. Just let him tell you what he needs. As long as he is gaining weight appropriately for his curve and having enough wet and dirty diapers, then he is fine. Just roll with it until the growth spurt is over.

Should You Breastfeed Your Newborn on a Schedule or On Demand?

There are many, MANY opinions out there about whether you should feed your newborn on a schedule or if you should feed on demand.

The way I see it is this, your baby does not understand much about the world. He knows when he is tired, he knows when he has to go to the bathroom, and he knows when he is hungry.

Because of that, I personally always fed my baby on demand when he was a newborn.

As he got older, and especially once we switched to exclusive pumping and he was getting enough milk at each sitting, it became easier to follow a schedule.

Though I technically always followed a feeding on demand concept, I was better able to plan out my day since I knew about how long it would take him to be hungry again.

In the beginning though, I say feed your baby when he’s hungry. If his basic instinct is telling him that he needs food and that he has to cry to get it, do you really want to listen to him scream for 30 minutes because it hasn’t quite been three hours? I didn’t think so.

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Signs Your Newborn is Hungry

There are several ways that your newborn will tell you that he is hungry. Sometimes the cues are subtle, but if you are paying attention then you will start to notice them.

  • Acting restless and stirring
  • Sucking on his hands
  • Turning his head side to side
  • Seeking you out (rooting)
  • Stretching
  • Crying

Once you hit the crying phase, you will most likely have to calm your newborn before you can actually begin breastfeeding.

If your baby is crying for milk, then that means that you most likely missed some of the earlier signs.

That isn’t always the case, I know my kid never gave me good signals, but there may be some small signs that could be your clue.

Signs Your Newborn is Getting Enough Breast Milk

I think the one thing that every breastfeeding mother worries about is whether or not her baby is getting enough breast milk.

As long as you are paying attention to your baby and watching for any signs of distress, there really is nothing to worry about. Trust that your body knows exactly what it is doing.

If you do have any concerns though, then definitely contact your pediatrician. He or she will be the best resource to making sure that your baby is thriving.

  • Weight Gain

Do not be surprised when your baby loses some of his birth weight in the first week or two of life. It is completely normal.

When babies are born, their bodies are a bit waterlogged from being in all of that amniotic fluid for nine months.

Once they start to dry out, so to speak, the water weight will drop off as well.

Normal newborns can lose up to 7% of their body weight in the first few days after birth.

You should only be concerned if your baby loses more than 10% of his body weight, or if he has not reached his birth weight by his second week of life.

If that is the case, then there could be a possibility of an issue either with your milk supply or with your baby’s ability to extract the milk. Your pediatrician will monitor you closely if that happens.

  • Wet Diapers

For the first week or so, babies will typically have one wet diaper for each day of life. So, one wet diaper on day one, two wet diapers on day two, and so on.

Once your milk comes in, you can expect your baby to have at least five or six wet diapers in a 24-hour period.

Most newborn diapers these days come with a yellow stripe down the front of them. That stripe will turn blue once the diaper is wet.

If you are cloth diapering, or if you just want an extra assurance, you can place a tissue in the diaper. If the tissue is wet, then your baby peed. It’s as simple as that.

If your baby is not having adequate wet diapers, or if he starts showing other signs of dehydration like lethargy and/or a shrunken fontanel (the soft spot on your baby’s head), then contact your pediatrician.

  • Dirty Diapers

The same as with the wet diapers, a typical newborn will have one dirty diaper for each day of life.

The stool will start out as a thick, black, tar-like substance called meconium and then will slowly change to a softer texture.

After day four, your baby’s stool should be yellow and he should be having 3-4 a day.

If your baby goes more than this, that is completely normal. Some babies will poop after every feeding. That is normal too.

Just know that breastfed babies will have very soft and runny stool, and it may even be seedy kind of like mustard. It’s normal. Weird, but normal.

What to do if Your Newborn isn’t Getting Enough Breast Milk

If at any point you are ever concerned that your newborn is not getting enough breast milk, then contact your pediatrician immediately.

Some pediatrician offices will even allow you to just walk in to get a weight check done rather than having to make an appointment.

I know that I was a frequent flyer at my pediatrician’s office for my son’s first few weeks because he was having so much trouble breastfeeding.

It is better to be safe than sorry, and your doctor is always a better resource than the internet.

Does Breastfeeding Get Easier?

The best way to succeed with breastfeeding a newborn is not to stress about it. It will get easier as time goes on.

There will be many hurdles that you will face in the first few months of being a mom, but that is normal, and you will make it through.

Also know that your breast milk supply will continue to increase as your baby gets older. The amount that you are making in the first week will not be the amount that you end up with, so don’t stress about that.

There are always ways to increase your breast milk supply.

Just know that if your baby is breastfeeding frequently and he is happy, healthy, and gaining weight appropriately that there is nothing wrong with your milk supply.

An oversupply is not the goal. The goal is to feed your baby, not your freezer.

Always remember that love is not measured in ounces.

Are you worried about trying to breastfeed your newborn? I would love to hear about it. Leave me a comment below or join the conversation in our Facebook group.

Until next time!

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