When babies are born, their stomachs are about the size of a grape and hold less than an ounce (~5-7 milliliters) of milk at once. Colostrum (the thick, yellow breast milk in the early days after birth) is tailored to what your baby needs, both in nutrition content and volume. Newborns need to eat frequently (typically, at least every 2-3 hours or 8-12 times every 24 hours) because their stomachs can only hold so much milk at once. Frequent feedings in the early days also help promote an abundant milk supply. It’s important to remember that even though the rule of thumb is to breastfeed every two-three hours, it doesn’t mean your baby will only want to nurse within those exact time frames. Think about your own eating patterns – do you always want to eat at the same times every day? Do you sometimes need to eat more than usual to feel satisfied with a meal? Do you sometimes “graze” throughout the day? Like adults, babies’ hunger isn’t always going to follow a schedule. This is why watching your baby’s hunger cues is a helpful guide (see #2).
At the core of caring for babies is understanding their behavior and how they communicate their needs. For example, knowing the signs that a baby is hungry (e.g., sucking on their fists, opening their mouth and turning their head looking for the breast) helps caregivers be responsive to the baby’s needs, which don’t follow an exact schedule. Also, parents may assume that something is going wrong with breastfeeding if a baby wakes up in the middle of the night or cries often. Knowing that it’s normal for babies to wake up at night or cry for reasons besides hunger can help correct the assumption that a baby is waking up or crying because something is wrong with the breast milk or breastfeeding, which can help families continue breastfeeding and meet their goals.
It’s normal to feel tugging or pulling while a baby breastfeeds, but pain can be a sign that something isn’t going like it should. Oftentimes pain may indicate a shallow latch, but other factors can contribute to pain as well. While pain during breastfeeding is commonly experienced, the myth that breastfeeding is supposed to hurt can keep breastfeeding moms from seeking the breastfeeding help they need.
Physiologically, breast milk production is driven by demand. Milk removal, whether by breastfeeding or milk expression (e.g.., hand expression or pumping), triggers the body to make more milk and is the most important factor for ensuring adequate supply. Let’s say you’re at a sit-down restaurant, and you order a soda to drink. If you’re regularly drinking the soda, the waiter will probably top off your soda as your drink. The more of soda you consume, the more your cup is going to be filled. Likewise, breastfeeding more frequently triggers the breasts to produce more milk. On the other hand, if you’re not drinking much of your soda, the waiter may not refill your drink at all; similarly, if a nursing mom isn’t breastfeeding or expressing milk often, her breasts will take that as a sign that they don’t need to produce as much milk.
Experiencing the highs and lows of breastfeeding can feel like a roller coaster. Lactation consultants can offer education to help you make informed decisions about your breastfeeding journey, address your breastfeeding concerns and questions, and walk alongside you to help you meet your breastfeeding goals.