How to Breastfeed: Tips to Get You Started

By Stacey Feintuch
Reviewed by Terri Major-Kincade, M.D.
February 13, 2023
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By now, you’ve surely heard that breastfeeding or chestfeeding is good for babies. The benefits are numerous and genuinely compelling: Breast milk protects newborns from developing illnesses and infections, it supports immunity by transferring antibodies and good bacteria from mother to child, and it helps babies grow healthy and strong. It’s also easily digestible, free, and often (but not always) plentiful.

If you can and decide to do it, it can be good for you, too: Those who breastfeed have a decreased risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, including breast cancer. What’s more, this protective effect increases over time.

Yet breastfeeding doesn’t always come naturally or easily. This guide will teach you how to prepare, what to expect, and hopefully how to make the process go a little more smoothly.

What Is Chestfeeding?

Often used interchangeably with “breastfeeding” or “nursing,” “chestfeeding” is another term used to describe how babies are fed. It’s most commonly used by some transmasculine and nonbinary parents, but “chestfeeding” can be used by anyone to describe the act of feeding from the body or feeding with a supplemental system in which a feeding tube is attached to the nipple.

Many organizations, including La Leche League International and the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, stress how important it is to use the term “chestfeeding” if someone prefers it.

“It’s less about anatomy and more about a preference for the language used,” says registered nurse Lindsey Shipley, a certified lactation consultant in Salt Lake City and the founder of Lactation Link. “When we speak to groups and are unsure how people identify, we may use a variety of terms to facilitate inclusion and understanding across the group.”

6 Tips for Breastfeeding Your Newborn

The following tips apply to lactating parents who breastfeed or chestfeed from their body.

1. Feed Often to Help the Milk Come In

Plan to feed your baby often in the beginning. From birth to 3 months, babies need to be fed every two to three hours throughout the day, says Melissa Kotlen, a registered nurse, private lactation consultant, and labor and delivery nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City. And in the first couple of weeks, until your milk supply is well established, it can be more like every one to three hours.

Frequent feedings help send the signal to your body to keep making milk, ensuring that your baby gets the nutrients they need. At first, your body will create colostrum, a thick, yellowish type of milk that’s rich in protein. There won’t be a lot of it, but that’s okay.

“Baby’s first milk, colostrum, isn’t high in volume in the first few days postpartum,” Shipley says. “But it’s nutrient-dense and packs a punch with disease-fighting properties you can’t find anywhere else.” Plus, the baby’s stomach is small, and it won’t take much to fill them up in the beginning.

Your baby wanting to eat often may seem exhausting at first, and some nursing parents worry that it means they aren’t making enough milk. But frequent feedings are to be expected and are extremely important for filling the baby’s tiny stomach and establishing your milk supply.

In the first few days of birth, as you keep up with regular nursing, the milk supply should grow, and you’ll soon start to produce creamier, whiter milk with more carbohydrates and fats than colostrum. This is what people often call the milk “coming in.” As this happens, the baby’s stomach capacity grows, too, Shipley says.

Fun fact: Your milk will continue to change as your baby grows, to provide the nourishment they need at each age and stage.

2. Keep Track of Feeding Frequency

To make sure you’re feeding your baby often enough, it’s a good idea to watch the clock. When checking to make sure you’re feeding your baby at least every three hours, count from the time you started each feeding, Kotlen says. So, if you begin a feeding at 6 a.m., your next one should start no later than 9 a.m., for example.

Especially in those first few days and weeks, it’s helpful to keep a feeding log that you can share with your baby’s doctor. For most babies, nursing every two to three hours around the clock is to be expected and is important in establishing your milk supply in the first two weeks.

During the day, if the baby is sleeping during feeding time, Kotlen says you should wake them up to eat. If the baby is too drowsy to drink, you can strip them down to their diaper to keep them awake. And if they keep dozing off, gently tickle their feet to get their attention, says Jennifer Trachtenberg, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician who practices in New York City.

Frequent nursing will continue to help you build and maintain your milk supply, says Shipley. “Milk is made on a supply and demand system,” she says. “The more you stimulate your breasts, the more your body is signaled to produce.” There aren’t really any other shortcuts or magic pills to boost supply, Shipley says.

So, try not to skip a feeding, since that will signal to your body that the baby doesn’t need as much milk. If your baby takes a bottle of formula, for example, it’s a good idea to pump or express milk, so that your body knows to keep making milk.

In every 24-hour period, Kotlen adds, some babies can go for one four- to five-hour stretch of sleeping without food, and it’s a good idea to only let that happen at night and only after your milk supply is established—you’re not likely to see this happen until they’re at least a few months old, though.

3. Watch for Your Baby’s Hunger Cues

Babies can’t tell you that they’re hungry, but they’ll usually show you. Common signs that a baby is ready to eat include sticking out their tongue, making their hands into a fist and putting it into their mouth, pecking their head at your shoulder or chest, turning their head toward the breast, or moving their head from side to side.

“Crying is a late hunger cue,” Kotlen says. “You don’t want them to get to that point. Pick up on when they’re showing those early signs.”

While you won’t know exactly how many ounces of milk your baby is drinking, there are some signs they’re getting enough to eat. After your milk comes in, you should hear swallowing during feedings. Afterward, look for signs that your baby is content, such as clenched fists opening, furrowed brows relaxing, and a rigid body melting into yours.

In the first few days after birth, a breastfed baby’s poop should change from black and tarry to a yellowish stool that looks a bit like seedy mustard. Starting around day four or five, your baby should wet about six or more diapers and soil about three or four diapers each day. They should stay content or sleep between feedings, too.

It’s important to attend all the recommended well-child visits for your newborn so their doctor can check for more signs they’re well fed. Babies should gain approximately a half-pound a week for the first few months, Trachtenberg says. Their face will start to fill out, and it’s a good sign if they’re hitting all their milestones as expected.

If the baby is failing to gain weight despite feeding every two to three hours, Kotlen recommends talking to your pediatrician or a lactation consultant, who can help you identify feeding problems—and hopefully help you solve them. It can be hard to figure out what’s going on alone, and there are professionals who want to help, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

4. Finish One Side Before Switching to the Other

When you breastfeed or chestfeed your baby, offer one breast or side of your chest and wait until it’s empty before offering the other, Kotlen says. That’s because the first milk that comes out is foremilk, which is thin and watery, similar to skim milk. After that is hindmilk, which is fatty—more like whole milk—and is more likely to hold the baby over until the next feeding.

By staying on the same side, you ensure that the baby is getting both types of milk. Wondering how you’ll tell? The baby will have a deep suck for the foremilk and more of a fluttery suck for the hindmilk.

At the next feeding, start on the opposite side from where you started last time. Kotel says that one breast may produce more milk than the other, and that’s normal, but it’s still important to be consistent about breastfeeding your baby from both sides, even if one yields noticeably less milk.

5. Master the Latch

It’s important to get a good latch, which is how the baby attaches to you while breastfeeding or chestfeeding. But a good latch can be difficult to get right.

As you both work to master this skill, try not to get frustrated or be too hard on yourself. “Remember that you and baby are both learning this new dance of latching at the same time,” Shipley says.

These are signs of a good latch:

  • It’s comfortable, not painful
  • The baby’s chin touches your breast or chest
  • The baby’s mouth opens wide, covering your nipple and areola
  • The baby’s lips turn out and their tongue cups beneath your breast or chest
  • You see or hear swallowing and the baby’s ears slightly move while feeding
  • The baby’s stomach and chest rest on your body
  • You don’t have cracked or bleeding nipples
  • Your breast becomes soft during feedings

If your baby isn’t latching well, try to relax. Find a quiet, calm spot so you both can focus on feeding.

Kotlen suggests readjusting your position by putting a pillow on your lap. You shouldn’t be hunched over the baby; instead, sit comfortably. Hold the baby in a football hold, with the baby’s bottom in the crook of your arm, and your forearm supporting the body.

With the other hand, hold your breast or chest. Touch the baby’s nose so that they’ll open their mouth, and then direct them to the nipple for a good latch.

6. Feed Yourself Well, Too

Remember that good nutrition is important for both you and your baby. By eating a varied diet of fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins, you’ll be able to provide your baby with nutrients they need and maintain an adequate supply of breast milk.

You should be consuming about 500 extra calories daily while you’re lactating. “Your body burns those calories,” Kotlen says.

You need to stay hydrated to produce milk for your baby. “If you’re dehydrated, that will ruin breastfeeding,” Kotlen says. She recommends drinking at least half of your pre-pregnancy body weight in ounces per day. (So someone who weighs 180 pounds should drink at least 90 ounces of water daily, for example.)

And remember to watch the alcohol and caffeine. Up to two alcoholic drinks per week is fine, but try not to have them both on the same night, Kotlen says. If you have caffeine in the morning, feed your baby first and then enjoy your coffee, tea, or other caffeinated beverage. Up to 200 to 300 milligrams of caffeine (about two cups of coffee) per day is considered safe while nursing. “The caffeine will metabolize out of your system in three hours,” Kotlen says—just in time for the next feeding, so it won’t affect your baby.

If you do end up passing the caffeine along in breast milk, your baby may become agitated or less likely to stick to their usual sleep routine.

Some babies may also be sensitive to foods the nursing parent has eaten, like spicy foods or dairy, which could cause digestive troubles, irritability, or fussiness.

As far as allergies are concerned, ask your baby’s doctor or a lactation consultant for personalized advice. Some people worry about eating foods that others in the family are allergic to, in case the baby’s allergic, as well. It’s usually okay to eat the food, Kotlen says. Your child won’t necessarily have the same allergy as a family member. And even if they eventually develop one, it won’t start right away.

Watch your child closely, and let their doctor know if you notice a rash, vomiting, diarrhea, blood in their stool, or the development of any other symptoms.

It’s Never Too Early to Ask for Help

Start building your support team as early as possible. Kotlen recommends getting the name and number of a lactation consultant as early as you can—your ob-gyn, pediatrician, birthing center, or hospital may be able to recommend someone.

By doing so, you’ll have someone you can call right away with questions. “I love it when people call before they deliver,” Kotlen says. It’s also a good idea to take a breastfeeding class, whether in person at a hospital or birthing center, or online. “That way you’re prepared prior to delivering the baby for all these things that pop up.”

Trachtenberg suggests having regular conversations with your baby’s pediatrician about breastfeeding or chestfeeding after the child is born (your doctor may even initiate these). Your baby’s doctor can check your latch and examine your baby to see whether they’re gaining the right amount of weight. A lactation consultant can help at any time, too, especially if you’re having trouble.

Breastfeeding or chestfeeding can be a challenge, but it also can get easier once you get the hang of it. Not only is it a healthy way to feed your baby, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to bond with the newest member of your family.

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