By Rachel Levine, BFA, FLC, IBCLC
You may not have realized it, but you’ve been preparing for breastfeeding all your life, and never more so than during these months of pregnancy. All you have to do is understand the process and trust that your body will know what to do when your baby is born.
When you were just a fetus, your breasts began as “buds.” Inside each bud, a basic mammary duct system—which produces and delivers breast milk—formed and grew along with you as you progressed through childhood. When you reached puberty, hormones released during your menstrual cycle—estrogen and progesterone—triggered breast development.
Now that you’re pregnant, your body is quickly preparing for breastfeeding. Between weeks 16 and 22, your breasts begin to make colostrum: The super-concentrated first milk produced for your baby. The areola (dark area of skin surrounding the nipple) usually darkens and gets larger as does the nipple. Even now, you may notice some clear, yellow or white drops of colostrum leaking from your nipples, particularly when you take a warm shower or bath.
Once your baby is born, breast milk develops in stages, taking about two weeks to full production. First, it is pure colostrum. This highly nutritious, concentrated food is packed with antibodies that are key to your baby’s health and are not present in his system until his first breastfeed. The colostrum coats their stomach, creating a barrier through which most bacteria and viruses cannot pass and decreasing your newborn’s risk for many types of infections. It helps protect their digestive tract, mucous membranes, throat, lungs and intestines, and lessens his risk for future food allergies. This coverage remains for as long as you breastfeed your baby.
Your breasts will produce about three to four tablespoons of colostrum in the first 24 hours after birth. Since a newborn’s stomach can only hold about two to three teaspoons of milk, this amount will be plenty for breastfeeding your baby during his first day of life. With frequent feedings (at least every two to three hours), the volume of milk that you are producing will increase, so there’ll always be enough to feed your baby.
A Good Start
Research has shown that breastfeeding benefits continue throughout your child’s life, including decreased risk of diabetes, obesity, juvenile leukemia, heart disease, asthma and ear infections. Breastfed children have also been found to have better jaw and eye development than those who are not breastfed. It benefits you, too: Directly after childbirth, breastfeeding helps your uterus return to its normal size. It may also help you lose your pregnancy weight and, studies have shown, reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Want to see all of this in action? Tell your health care provider that you’d like to have your newborn with you right after birth (any tests can be done later or while your baby is in your arms). Have him placed on your chest, skin-to-skin, and you’ll be amazed as he latches on to your breast and starts feeding. Don’t worry if he is not interested in having a big meal just after birth, especially if you had medical interventions during your labor. Sometimes the first feed looks more like a nuzzle, graze, or taste. If you and your baby need to be separated for a period of time after birth, begin skin-to-skin as soon as possible. Continue to practice skin-to-skin as much as possible over the next few days, you may find that you both take to breastfeeding with ease.
If you experience problems breastfeeding, you’re not alone. There are plenty of breastfeeding resources to help you on your journey. Talk to a lactation consultant (ask for one at your place of birth) or contact your local La Leche League (www.lalecheleague.org). Consider enrolling in a prenatal breastfeeding preparation class to help you understand the process and get ready for that first special feeding.
A Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator is your trusted partner for one of the most important journeys of your life.
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