1. Learn about breastfeeding
For most first-time moms in the United States, breastfeeding is an entirely new and strange experience. Many of us weren't exposed to breastfeeding as children or as adults. Research continues to extol the benefits of breastmilk over formula, and there is heightened interest in breastfeeding, but the act itself is still largely a private matter.
The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend exclusively breastfeeding for the baby's first six months, and they recommend continuing to breastfeed for at least the first year or two as solids are introduced, and until mother and baby are ready to wean. During pregnancy, it's easy to get caught up in the lists of things to do and buy before baby comes; bear in mind that learning how to nourish your baby is more important than finding matching curtains for the crib-set. This preparation will arm you with the most up-to-date information about breastfeeding so that you don't fall for common myths and misinformation that can sabotage breastfeeding success.
Here are some great resources for breastfeeding:
On the Web
This is also a good time to learn about common myths of breastfeeding, so that you can be prepared when others (although they have good intentions) might steer you in the wrong direction.
2. Find a breastfeeding-friendly caregiver, hospital and pediatrician
You will likely see your caregiver (OB/GYN, midwife, or doula) many times throughout the duration of your pregnancy. A caregiver who is knowledgeable about breastfeeding will be able to answer your questions, help you prepare and help with troubleshooting after the baby is born. Read more on how to know a healthcare provider is not supportive of breastfeeding.
Having your baby at a hospital or birth clinic that is breastfeeding-friendly will help you avoid many of the pitfalls that can make breastfeeding a challenge during the first hours and days after your baby is born. Ask about the hospital's track record (how many mothers are breastfeeding exclusively at discharge), whether Lactaction Consultant's are available 24/7, and whether they encourage other practices that can promote breastfeeding success such as immediate skin-to-skin contact, and "rooming-in" or co-sleeping. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of US hospitals are certified as Baby Friendly, but there may be steps you can take to make sure your experience is geared towards breastfeeding success.
You will definitely want a pediatrician who is educated about breastfeeding and supportive of your decision to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months. Unfortunately, most pediatricians have not been required to undergo training in breastfeeding, and many offer dated advice that is now considered inaccurate (such as "pumping and dumping" if you drink alcohol, or giving formula to a baby who is jaundiced). Recent studies report that an alarming rate of doctors suggest feeding a baby solid food earlier than the AAP guidelines recommend--not only can this hinder successful long-term breastfeeding, but it can also increase risk of gastrointestinal disorders, ear infection, respiratory illness and even obesity for your child. Asking general questions such as "Under what conditions should an exclusively breastfed baby be switched to formula?" or "How long should a child be breastfed?" will help you determine whether your prospective pediatrician will be a help or a detriment to breastfeeding.
You can find additional information about assembling a team of healthcare professionals who will ensure your breastfeeding success at Best for Babes: Your A-team.
3. Create your birth plan
Breastfeeding is a process that naturally begins in the minutes after a healthy baby's birth, but in the age of hospital-birth many interventions come between you and your baby's opportunity to get off on the right foot with breastfeeding. These interventions are likely unnecessary if you and your baby are healthy and the birth was complication-free. A birth plan is a document you can create and share with your caregiver and the hospital staff to communicate your preferences and make sure they are respected, as long as there is no medical emergency that necessitates a different course of action.
Some things you may include in your birth plan to ensure a successful start to breastfeeding include:
- Delayed umbilical cord clamping
- No suctioning the baby's mouth and nose
- Immediate skin-to-skin contact (no bath for baby, just gentle towel-drying if needed)
- No bottles or pacifiers for baby
- Wait until after first successful feed to weigh, measure the baby, etc
Read through this breastfeeding plan (scroll to the bottom of the webpage for the download) for more ideas as you craft your birth plan.
4. Create a support network
In addition to your caregiver, the hospital staff and pediatrician, it helps to surround yourself with people who are supportive of your interest and efforts in breastfeeding.
Having the support of your partner is paramount, especially after the baby is born, because you can rely on that person to take care of you and the baby as you recover from delivery and adjust to the baby's eating schedule. You may also want to enlist family members and friends to help out with meals, chores, childcare, and other tasks that you would normally do. Most people would be more than happy to help a new mother--all you need to do is ask!
Also, find other women who have breastfed successfully (and recently, if that's possible). You may have friends or coworkers who have breastfed, or you can attend a local La Leche League meeting to make new connections. Breastfeeding can be especially challenging in the early weeks, and hormones can wreak havoc on your emotions at this time as well. Having an experienced mother to lend an ear to your questions and concerns and offer a hug can keep you from giving up if you feel exhausted and overwhelmed by your baby's needs.
Make a list of the friends, family, local groups, and health professionals (your doctor, pediatrician or lactation consultant) who you can call after your baby is born, and put a star next to those who you can call when you are at wit's end at 3 a.m. and your two-day-old baby doesn't seem to latch or eat well. You may not need to make the 3 a.m. call, but if you do, you'll be glad to have the contact information ready.
5. Prepare yourself for motherhood
Many women struggle with the loss of independence after the birth of their first child, and they can find themselves overwhelmed by the needs of their newborn baby. Having realistic expectations for yourself and for the first 6-12 weeks after your baby is born will help you adjust more readily. Allow yourself time to get to know your baby, to recover and rest. Don't expect to keep up with the lifestyle you led before having a baby or becoming pregnant. Don't worry about your to-do list. Save dusting, vacuuming, laundry, dishes, and any other non-essential task for later. This is not the time to worry about entertaining guests. You and your baby will soon become efficient at breastfeeding, and you will gradually be able to return to many of your regular household obligations, errands and pastimes.
Remember that this early stage is just a tiny part of the life-long relationship you'll have with your child, and in the long-run, breastfeeding can make so many things easier by promoting better health for you and your baby. Chances are, you'll look back at the simplicity of this time with fondness. So enjoy the cuddling, and don't fret about the house.