31/01/2012 14:43 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Breastfeeding For Beginners

Everyone has heard that "breast is best", but if you are a mum-to-be planning to breastfeed you may still find the idea daunting. Will it hurt? How often do you have to feed, and for how long? And how do you know if your baby is getting enough milk?

Every baby is different, and there can be a variety of challenges involved, but stick with it and breastfeeding can be a wonderfully rewarding and bonding experience.

Breastfeeding for beginners
Don't worry if breastfeeding seems challenging at first. As well as recovering from labour and birth, new mums have to learn feeding positions, techniques, and to understand hunger signals. At the same time, hungry newborns usually want to feed very frequently. It can all seem very tiring to begin with, so make sure you stay hydrated, eat well and get plenty of rest, especially in the early weeks.

For some women it can also feel wonderful, and yet a little strange, to discover a part of their body has a whole new purpose. Mum Carol, 31, from Stoke on Trent, says of learning to breastfeed, "It was weird using part of my body for something completely new. As if I had discovered a can-opener as part of my elbow."

Remember that, like anything, breastfeeding can take a little time to perfect, and any problems will usually be resolved with practise.

If you should experience any pain or discomfort, check to make sure your baby is latching on correctly. As well as reading and looking at diagrams of how a good latch works, it's also worth watching videos of breastfeeding in action. If you're in any doubt, don't hesitate to contact your community midwife, who will be able to direct you in your own home.

As a baby gets older and bigger she will feed for longer each session and less frequently, so you'll get more rest too!

Feeding in the early days after birth
In the first few days after birth the breasts produce colostrum. This thick yellow fluid is packed with antibodies to protect infants against disease. This is gradually replaced over the next few days by normal milk.

Breastmilk contains everything a baby needs, and so as long as a baby is gaining weight and seems alert and happy, there is no need to worry about how much milk exactly he is drinking.

The NHS recommends feeding on-demand for new babies and not timing feeds to maximise milk production. Some babies may want feeding every couple of hours to begin with.

Pippa, 27, from Shropshire, found this hard. "I was tired and grumpy, being up practically all night for those first few weeks. I felt like I never had any proper rest. Luckily that phase didn't last too long!"

Current guidelines in the UK are that mums should try to breastfeed exclusively for six months, and then - along other food and drink - for as long as they wish.

In the UK less than one per cent of women practise exclusive breastfeeding for six months, although 69 per cent do breastfeed to begin with. North America has similar figures but many European countries do a bit better.

Health benefits
The health benefits associated with breastfeeding have been well documented. Studies have shown that formula fed babies have a higher risk of suffering from mild problems such as ear ache, and also more serious illnesses, including diabetes and leukemia.

Those who were breastfed as infants have a lower incidence of eczema, asthma, and obesity. It can protect against high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease in later life, and may be linked to higher IQ.

It's not just babies who benefit either; mothers who breastfeed lower their chances of getting ovarian and breast cancer. Plus, breastfeeding can use up to 500 calories a day, and so help you to lose the baby weight.

Asking for help
Breastfeeding doesn't come naturally to everyone but there are many useful resources for mums to turn to including telephone helplines offering advice.

If you are a mum looking for more 'hands-on' support your midwife or health visitor may be able to direct you to a breastfeeding group, or a local specially trained volunteer.

Andrea, 26, from Liverpool, sought help from her midwife. "I had tried to breastfeed my son but it was much too painful and I gave up after a few tearful days. When I had my daughter I asked to speak to someone about trying again. The midwife showed me how to make sure her mouth was wide open. It didn't hurt at all! I hadn't realised I had been doing it wrong all along with my son. I fed her for three months and was really pleased."

When breastfeeding does not work out
All parents want the best for their children. Breastfeeding is the natural way to feed your baby, and it does have undeniable benefits, but it frankly does not work out for everyone.

Although the choice between breast or bottle can feel very important when you have a small baby, those who do not, or cannot, breastfeed should not feel like failures. Remember that baby formulas are very advanced today, and your baby can grow up to be happy and healthy whether on the breast or bottle.

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