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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Starting to breastfeed

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Breastfeeding is a skill like any other and takes time to learn for you and your pēpi (baby). You need patience, time and support from whānau (family), friends and health professionals. You also need access to up-to-date information.

Most mothers can breastfeed and even if it isn't easy at first, it gets easier with time and practice.

Colostrum, which is thick and yellow, and the first milk you produce after birth, is the perfect food for your newborn. You make just a small amount of it, but it has lots of antibodies and prebiotics. These help protect your pēpi from infections and help them grow healthy gut bacteria.

Around three days after your pēpi is born, your milk will change from colostrum to mature milk, which is thinner and whitish in colour. During this time, your breasts will start to feel quite full, but you can avoid engorgement by feeding your pēpi often.

It's normal for pēpi to lose weight in their first few days, but they should be back to their birth weight by the time they're 2 weeks old.

Getting the right latch is the key to comfortable and successful breastfeeding. Your pēpi needs to be able to remove milk effectively, and a good latch means you will not damage your nipples. This BreastfeedingNZ video shows how to position your baby and make sure they latch well.

Let-down of milk

Let-down (also called milk ejection reflex or MER) makes your milk available to your pēpi and happens soon after they start suckling. Your baby's suckling stimulates you to make the hormone oxytocin, which triggers milk let-down. Once the milk is flowing your pēpi begins to suck and swallow rhythmically.

While you're feeding, more let-downs can happen, but you might not feel these. You're likely to notice your pēpi sucking more vigorously or swallowing more milk. Some mothers do not feel a let-down, while others feel tingling in their breasts, and some may notice that milk drips from the breast not being used. All these experiences are normal.

Feeding frequency

It’s good to let your pēpi baby feed whenever they show signs that they're hungry. These hunger signs include nuzzling, hand sucking and mouthing (when they open their mouth, turn their head and possibly poke their tongue out). Crying is the last feeding cue and once your pēpi gets upset it may be hard to get them to latch.

From the second day after birth, pēpi often feed a lot. This is because they have tiny stomachs and can only take small amounts of breast milk with each feed. During this time, frequent feeding also helps to stimulate your milk supply.

As your pēpi grows, their stomach gets bigger, so they can feed less often but take more milk at each feed.

In the first few days, your pēpi will feed around eight to 12 times every 24 hours – some pēpi will feed more often than this. Every pēpi is different, and the number of times they feed depends on several things such as:

Women's breasts are all different, and some store more milk than others (which has nothing to do with your breast size). As a result, some pēpi feed more often than others. It's also quite normal for pēpi to have several days when they want to feed more often, as they're going through a growth spurt. If you're worried about how often your pēpi is feeding, talk to your midwife or Well Child nurse.

Supplements and special foods

Your pēpi baby needs iodine to help their brain develop so health professionals recommend you take an iodine supplement when you're breastfeeding. You can buy iodine supplements over the counter at a pharmacy but it's cheaper to get them on prescription from your GP or midwife.

If you're eating a healthy diet, you shouldn't have to take any other supplements.

Breastfeeding can make you thirsty. Have a glass of water next to you each time you breastfeed.

Avoid alcohol when you're breastfeeding, but having an occasional drink is usually safe. If you do have a drink, the Feed Safe app helps you to figure out when your breast milk will be free of alcohol and answers some common questions about alcohol and breastfeeding. It's free to download.

How long to breastfeed

It's best to only give your pēpi breast milk (called exclusive breastfeeding) for their first six months.

Even after six months, health professionals recommend that you carry on breastfeeding while introducing other foods. In fact, the World Health Organisation recommends that breastfeeding continues for two years or longer.

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On the next page: Getting help with breastfeeding

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed December 2021.


Page reference: 55822

Review key: HIBRF-24381