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How Your Baby Begins Breast Feeding

Pregnancy creates a special relationship between mother and child. The baby rests safe and secure in the uterus, while the mother easily meets its every need. After birth, the baby begins the long, slow process toward independence. Learning to absorb nutrition through the digestive tract rather than receiving nutrients through the umbilical cord is an important skill that must be perfected in the first few days after birth.

Nature has designed breast-feeding as the perfect system to ease this transition. The mother continues to process food into its nutrient components, but now these components are transported into the fluid produced by the breasts. Not only does breast milk contain all the necessary nutrients for the rapidly developing newborn, it has several other great advantages as well. Breast milk contains antibodies that pass the mother's immunity to common childhood illnesses directly to the baby; that's why breast-fed infants have fewer colds and ear infections than bottle-fed babies. Also, breast milk is always ready when the baby is hungry and is always the perfect temperature.

All these advantages incline most pregnant women to plan on breast-feeding. Nonetheless, only 56 percent of new mothers leave the hospital with plans to breast-feed exclusively. The statistics are even more disappointing three weeks after birth. In that time, many new mothers give up on nursing. However, of the remaining women who are still breast-feeding at three weeks, most will continue breast-feeding for six months, which is the length of time that breast milk offers its maximal beneficial effect.

Why do so many women have trouble initiating and maintaining breast-feeding if it is nature's intended method for nourishing infants? There are two main reasons for this phenomenon. The first is that many women, believing that breast-feeding is natural, fail to understand that it requires a period of learning and adjustment for both mother and newborn. When they encounter the early, minor difficulties associated with establishing the nursing relationship, they think that something is wrong and they quit. The second reason is that formula is so accessible, and there is tremendous societal pressure to use it. Today, most new parents have mothers who never breastfed. A lot of these older women are suspicious of breast-feeding and instead of offering support to their daughters and daughters-in-law, they offer criticism in the guise of interested questions or advice, such as "How do you know she's getting enough?" and "Looks to me like he's still hungry."

A confident new mother easily addresses these simple comments, but a confident new mother is hard to find. The typical first-time mother, still reeling from the hormonal surges surrounding delivery, is very insecure in her relationship with her newborn. Yet she is consumed with love for this helpless creature, and any suggestion, no matter how innocent, that she is starving her child is enough to send her to the drugstore for formula at any time of the day or night.

The key, then, to establishing and maintaining a satisfying breast-feeding relationship is knowledge. It is very important to understand how a baby learns to nurse. It is equally critical to understand how breast milk production is influenced.

The most important thing to remember about getting started breast-feeding is that it takes babies a while to figure out the mechanics of this practice. At first, they have no idea that they are eating until the milk begins to fill their stomach. This means that your baby does not recognize either the breast or the nipple. An infant does not understand that the nipple is the source of the milk. A baby does not even realize that the nipple is in its mouth unless certain parts of the mouth are stimulated. Only then will he or she latch-on and begin to suck. In a few days, the infant begins to make simple connections and learns to breast-feed. Until then, he or she is very easily frustrated and may have some difficulty getting started.

After all, babies only decide that they want to eat when they are very hungry. In just a few moments they become frantic with hunger. Being held next to the breast with the nipple near their mouth does nothing to soothe them. The nipple must be introduced into the mouth and stroked along the palate. Only then will the innate urge to suck be activated. The baby will latch-on to the nipple, the milk will begin to flow, and the baby who was frantic only moments before now relaxes completely, blissfully enjoying the sweet taste of the soothing liquid.

Breast-feeding operates under a feedback mechanism mediated by hormones. When the baby latches-on and begins to suck, the hormone prolactin is released from the pituitary gland. Prolactin stimulates the breasts to produce milk. That's why more breast-feeding produces more milk. Whatever the baby takes during one feeding will be replaced in time for the next feeding. In the beginning, the baby will want to nurse frequently, probably every two hours. The breasts build up the milk supply from zero to 1-2 ounces. After several days, once the milk supply has been established, the baby will receive more milk at each nursing session and be able to last longer between feedings.

The feedback mechanism has important consequences when a bottle of formula is substituted for a nursing session. Your body does not know that the baby received a bottle. It senses that the baby did not need to eat for a longer time than usual, and it cuts back on the milk available for the next nursing session. Your decreased milk supply leaves the baby hungry at the next nursing, prompting you to offer another bottle, thus setting up a vicious cycle. It does not take many days before you are tempted to give up nursing entirely because there was "not enough milk." It is important to remember that there is no such thing as not enough milk. Your milk supply will drop off only if you interfere with milk production by substituting bottles of formula for nursing. Many new mothers inadvertently sabotage their breast-feeding efforts in this way.

In addition, if you abruptly change the nursing schedule, your breasts will become engorged, that is, painfully full of milk. Engorgement is very uncomfortable and can lead to breast infection. If you wish to change the nursing schedule, there are several points to keep in mind. Never skip more than one feeding at a time. Never discontinue nursing abruptly. Always make changes over a period of days, so that your milk supply will decrease gradually. If you need to be away from the baby for a period of time, use a breast pump while you are gone. The milk you pump from your breast can be saved to bottle-feed the baby at another time and you will avoid engorgement.

Breast-feeding is not necessarily difficult or inconvenient. After all, until the relatively recent invention of formula, all babies were successfully breast-fed. If you plan on breast-feeding, learn all you can about the process. Be patient for the first few days while your baby learns to nurse. Above all, give yourself time. If you stick with breastfeeding for just two to three weeks, you may find that you enjoy it so much that many weeks or months of a delightful nursing relationship will surely follow.