It can be a bit of an eye opener when, after years of lacy bras and push up contraptions, you have a baby and suddenly realise – properly realise – what your breasts are actually there for.
Of course, breastfeeding is what they're there for and, if you are one of those lucky women who thought your breasts were amazing from the moment you got them, now you can prepare to be really wowed.
Is it true that breast is best?
From the moment your baby is born, your body prepares for its next amazing job – to nourish your child. Breast milk is a complete food – it's very densely packed with water, fat, proteins, sugars and minerals, supplying everything your baby needs to grow. It also contains hormones and numerous antibodies, which can help your baby fight off infection.
The World Health Organisation recommends exclusively breastfeeding until the age of six months, when the process of weaning can begin (if your baby is ready).
Studies have shown numerous potential health benefits if that advice is followed. For example, breastfeeding may aid cognitive development. It might give your baby increased resistance against colds, flu, ear infections and gastroentiritis. The risk of childhood obesity is lower, as is obesity later in life. Babies who are breastfed may have fewer dental problems, and are thought to be at a lower risk of developing asthma and eczema.
Breastfeeding also offers health benefits for mothers. It's thought that breastfeeding might help you return to your pre-pregnancy weight quicker – it certainly helps your uterus shrink back to its normal size faster. Breastfeeding also puts you at a lower risk of developing breast cancer, and decreases the chances of you developing ovarian cancer before the menopause.
Breastfeeding doesn't only offer physical benefits. It can be a terrific bonding time for mother and baby and, on a very practical level, it's very convenient – and free! There is no formula to mix and there are no bottles to sterilise – any time your baby needs feeding, your breasts will be waiting.
How do I get started?
You might have noticed your breasts leaking a little fluid even before your baby arrived. Now you have given birth, they will begin producing much more of a nutrient rich substance called colostrum.
Colostrum doesn't look like much, and while you wait for your milk to come in, which might take three or four days, you might worry that your newborn will be getting hungry.
Take heart, your little one has a tiny tummy anyway (it's about the size of a walnut), and that colostrum is absolutely packed with all the essential ingredients for the best start in life. Pretty soon, they'll be glugging milk, but for now, colostrum is exactly what they need. That said, they might need it every hour or so!
Some babies take to breastfeeding the moment they are born, and will latch on with ease. If that happens for you, that's wonderful, but it doesn't always happen that way, and many mothers (and their infants) need a bit of help and encouragement to get it right.
Your midwife should offer you support at the beginning (and if help isn't offered, but you feel you need it, do just ask). She will show you, for example, different positions in which to hold your baby to make it easy for them to suckle and swallow.
If you are cradling your baby, you will probably need to position them so their whole body is facing yours (so they're not having to twist their neck). Some mums let their newborns lie on their chest. Others may find it easier holding their baby rather like a rugby ball, at the side. You simply need to find the most comfortable position for both you and your baby, and that might take a bit of practise.
Your midwife will also show you how to offer the breast to your child (a nipple on their top lip should be enough to get them to open their mouths and latch on, so sweet), and how to check (both through sight and by how it feels) whether your baby is latched on properly, and has enough of your breast in their mouth.
One skill that's definitely worth learning is how to remove your baby from your nipple (because even when they fall asleep, they don't necessarily let go!). The tip of your little finger in the side of their mouth should break the suction.
Importantly, breastfeeding should not be painful. If it's hurting (or your nipples are cracking), then the most likely cause is that your baby is not quite latching on properly, so ask your midwife to offer further advice, or seek support elsewhere (more below).
How do I get into a routine?
When your milk comes in, oh boy, chances are you'll know about it. Your body will suddenly flood your breasts with milk. To begin with, they might feel like rocks and, well, as if they're going to explode. The term 'engorgement' is so fitting.
Your breasts will probably feel a bit sore at this point, but you'll soon begin to understand the true brilliance of what your body, and your breasts, are capable of.
Some mums want to introduce a feeding routine to their baby right from the outset – however, the advice is to feed your baby on cue, whenever they tell you they need it, for very good reasons.
Feeding on demand not only ensures your baby is content (believe me, newborns do not take well to having an empty tummy, and even the littlest baby will communicate 'I'm hungry' VERY loudly!), it'll also help your own body to get into the swing of things.
Milk production works, quite efficiently, on a supply and demand basis. Your body registers what your baby is taking at each and every feed, and replenishes what is required.
As such, within a week or so (or maybe a bit longer, everyone is different), your milk production should be starting to get in sync with what your baby needs. As your baby starts to fall into a routine of their own, so will your boobs – meaning the uncomfortable engorgement will start to settle down.
There will still be times when your boobs feel very full – and babies constantly change their patterns to a degree.
You might find you have some leakage (sometimes even the sound of your baby crying will trigger a surge of milk, and you'll be warned by a prickling sensation in your boobs, called the let-down reflex), so keep a good stock of breast pads. But by and large, if you feed on demand, your body will take its cues from your baby, which is the best scenario for you both.
How should I look after myself while breastfeeding?
Just eat a well balanced diet, drink plenty of water, and rest when you can.
Breastfeeding is an extension of pregnancy – you were feeding your baby in utero, and you are feeding them now, so many of the same rules apply (although you can now eat unpasteurised cheese, hoorah!). You just need to keep in mind that whatever you are consuming will, to some degree, be passed to your baby through your breast milk.
Stay off the booze for now - or if you do drink alcohol, keep it to one or two units a week. Don't allow yourself to become dehydrated (many mums find they feel very thirsty as soon as their baby latches on, so have a drink next to you).
Eat plenty of vegetables, fruit, protein and slow-burning carbs to keep your energy levels up (it's not so much the breastfeeding which makes you tired as the interrupted sleep).
If you eat well, you'll be ensuring your baby gets what they need, and shouldn't require any supplements. Are you trying to lose some baby weight? According to the NHS, breastfeeding burns up to 500 calories a day, so if you stay off the cream cakes, breastfeeding will see the extra pounds melt away.
If you need to take medication while breastfeeding, always do so under the supervision of a doctor, or check with your pharmacist what is and isn't suitable.
And as for your boobs, hopefully breastfeeding won't be making them sore – but if they are sore, perhaps with cracked or bleeding nipples, then apply a lanolin nipple cream (it won't need to be washed off before feeds) and seek some advice from a breastfeeding expert.
Breastfeeding isn't working for us, who can help?
If you and your baby are struggling to get breastfeeding going, or if you are finding it difficult because it's painful, don't feel bad about it – thousands of mothers need extra help, and many of them succeed in the end.
The sooner you get help the better, because if your baby isn't managing to take much milk, your supply will start to dwindle.
Don't panic, though. If you can both get the hang of it, you'll be given advice about introducing feeding patterns to help up your milk production.
If you need help very early on, your midwife will be your first port of call. After that, you should be in contact with a health visitor, who may be able to check what you are doing, and offer advice (or put you in touch with someone who can). Alternatively, you might be able to see a local trained volunteer who can give you expert advice on getting it right.
The National Breastfeeding helpline, run by The Breastfeeding Network, is there to offer support to mums, call 0300 100 0210. They'll also be able to tell you about any breastfeeding drop-in centres in your area, which you can go along to for practical advice and to meet other mums who are breastfeeding. There's nothing like spending time with other mums in the same situation to make you feel better.
Alternatively, try the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, a charity which is run by mums for mums, and aims to give accurate advice to women wanting to breastfeed. Call 08444 122 949.
Wherever you live, there will be some help nearby.
I couldn't breastfeed and I feel guilty...
Some mums really want to breastfeed and, as hard as they try, it just doesn't work. Others manage it for a much shorter time than they would like.
In all hope, those mums would have been given friendly and supportive advice – and not made to feel bad about not managing to breastfeed. But, having been told that breast is best, it's understandable that those mums suffer a nagging sense of guilt.
Let's be pragmatic. 'Breast is best' is a very emotive term (and let's also be honest, becoming a mother is kind of an emotional time), which suggests anything less is not good enough.
Breastfeeding is 'the ideal' because of its additional benefits, but it is NOT the be all and end all.
As a mother, feeding your baby is priority. Feeding. If you feed with formula from a bottle, you are still feeding your baby, who will grow and flourish. And on top of that, you're still giving them all the other massively important things they need – your warmth, your love and your attention.
If breastfeeding doesn't work out, let it go and move on. Gaze into your baby's adoring eyes at every feed, and remember, that tiny little person has the capability to fill up every inch of your life – so, really, don't give an inch when it comes to guilt. You have much lovelier things to think about!