A while back I took a class on breastfeeding at the hospital where I planned to deliver (North Shore Medical Center Salem Hospital). Below I’ve outlined some of the notes I took as they pertain to women’s health, as well as my own thoughts.
As many people are saying, “breast is best”, it’s interesting to look into why. Studies have shown breast feeding can help women lose some of the pregnancy weight faster as you are expelling energy to produce milk. It can also help reduce your risks of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, as well as it releases hormones to calm you down.
But what’s actually going on in the body when it produces milk? The glands that produce milk (alveoli) send the milk to ducts which lead to the nipple opening. The baby draws the milk out when sucking, and the more the baby drinks, the more our breasts produce. At first we only produce colostrum, which is this fatty liquid that has all kinds of goodies like antibodies and beta carotene for our babies newly-developing immune system and gut. Then the real milk comes in after about 3-5 days. When a baby started nursing each time, first (s)he will get the foremilk which is mostly composed of water, and after feeding for a few minutes (up to 10 minutes) the hindmilk (which is a lot fattier) follows. The Letdown Reflex happens each time the baby feeds and it is when the baby has latched and the breasts transition from letting out foremilk to hindmilk. Some women can feel the letdown reflex happening (described as pins and needles or some localized tightness) but many women feel nothing.
But how does breastfeeding feel? Well, apparently it is a very novel sensation to most when the baby first latches (it definitely was in my experience) and for many it is difficult to get a good latch and takes some practice! The biggest worry is that a baby who has latched poorly and is just hooked onto your nipple and so (s)he will cause the mom pain. The way to avoid this is to make sure the baby gets more of the areola in its mouth rather than just the nipple. To detach a baby from your nipple if they are incorrectly latched, you definitely don’t want to just pull them off (ouch), but instead you should insert a clean finger into their mouth to break the suction, by running your finger along their gum line.
Also leaking is normal, especially at the beginning of breastfeeding, but it usually does slow down and stop as you continue breastfeeding and your baby gets used to it. You can use nursing pads and also press your nipple/cross your arms when you feel like you are leaking to help to try and stop it.
What about your diet; how does it affect the breastmilk? What can you eat? From this class I was told you can eat and drink anything, it’s just a matter of seeing what your baby’s reaction is (if they get gassy, fussy, hiccup-y, etc after a meal, check back to see what you last eat). Obviously some things to consider are making sure things like alcohol and caffeine are out of your system before you breastfeed (I think the advice was if you have an alcoholic drink, you don’t want to feel tipsy, and you want to wait about 2 hours before you breastfeed… but don’t quote me on those hours). Also for babies that have occult blood (invisible blood in the baby’s stool), the first things a doctor may advise you to avoid are probably dairy and soy, because they are the most common culprits that irritate the babies developing gastro-intestinal system (this is what occurred in my experience). The Kelly Mom blog has a post that goes into food sensitivities in more detail.
For pumping, the advice was not to start until 3-4 weeks unless needed and to make sure you get a pump with a suction cup that is sized correctly to your breast; you don’t want your nipple squished on the sides. The other advice was to pump in the morning, or after a baby’s feeding (I believe about 30 minutes after is the recommendation).
For general nipple care, the advice was to try using your own breast milk around the inflamed area first. Then you can try lansinoh or coconut oil on tender area, and then if it’s really bad, use manuka honey (here’s a cream made with it), but wash it off before feeding the baby.
Other painful aspects about breastfeeding include:
- Engorgement: this occurs when you don’t breastfeed enough so your breasts become swollen and hard. Regularly nursing helps prevent this, but if you need to you can also remove milk by hand (or what’s called expressing milk) you can use a pump. Just express until your breasts are no longer hard. Cold compresses can also be used after feeding to help bring down the swelling. To express, massage the breast tissue and then grab above and below the breast with your thumb and forefinger and press back towards your chest wall, then gently squeeze, moving your hand all around to help drain multiple areas.
- Mastitis: this is the most common problem, and it is when your breast gets infected with bacteria, causing pain. You will probably have a fever or other flu-like symptoms as well. This can occur from blocked ducts, nipple injuries, or problems with breastfeeding. You want to call the doctor if you feel this has occurred. Also also make sure to wash your hands frequently to reduce infection risk.
- Blocked ducts: this is caused by not relieving the breasts. A blocked duct will feel sore and tender. Try taking a warm shower and apply moist heat, and/or gently massage before breast feeding. Also try expressing after feedings if you still feel engorged.
- Yeast infection: this will cause your nipples to be shiny, red, and painful. Yeast (also called thrush) can also grow in your baby’s mouth so look for cottage cheese looking stuff in their cheeks.
Who can you call for help? Nowadays you can call your doctor, your baby’s pediatrician, and/or some hospitals also have lactation support groups (sometimes free), or lactation consultants (usually not free) that you can call to get one-on-one help.
A little more about breastmilk. In lieu of my own little own having some kind of sickness, I’ve been looking more into breastmilk’s functions. This searching led me to this internet viral photo showing how a mom’s breastmilk changed when her infant got sick. The 2013 study mentioned in that post talks about breastmilk’s immunological function and explains how when the mom or baby get sick, the number of leukocytes (aka white blood cells) in the breastmilk drastically increases to help protect them, because leukocytes help fight disease. I find that to be such a cool example of symbiosis. I personally have also noticed that breastfeeding seems to keep both me and the baby from getting some of the sicknesses that were going around (my mom, mother-in-law, and husband each got sick after the baby was born while the two moms were visiting!).
Lastly, I also read an article by NPR addressing the breastfeeding versus formula debate for poor countries. The major points that this article made were that formula is not a godsend for impoverished countries for the following reasons:
- formula requires water to make it, of which clean sources are not always available
- formula causes increased risks of diarrhea and respiratory infections, and
- formula can cost up to 30% of a families income, and subsequently families made dilute the formula to make it last longer, which reduces the amount of nutrients the baby gets per serving.
The article also talked about how it’s weird that we are constantly trying to research the benefits of breastfeeding when it’s as natural as “breathing, chewing, hearing, passing stool”. It also went on to explain that even an underfed mom can make excellent quality milk, and as for quantity, it is also enough except in the case of severe malnutrition. The latter point is interesting to me because I hear a lot of moms, including myself with babies labeled as “failure to thrive”, which essentially means our babies aren’t gaining weight at a rate that the medical professional expects. In my case, the doctor assumed I wasn’t producing enough milk and told me to supplement with formula. It turned out that my baby drank the same amount of formula as I was producing of milk, so I wasn’t the common denominator and rather my baby just drank only tiny amounts per feed. I’m curious as to why there are many medical professionals that believe many moms can’t produce enough milk when studies may be showing the contrary.
Anyway, the article ended by saying that it is up to the mom on how they want to provide for their child, however, it is important that they have accurate information to make informed decisions. This means that we would need to reform the system so doctors are never paid to handout formula samples, and on in which moms are not incentivized by free samples to use formula.
Hey, if what you read seemed dated or familiar, I’ve been combining all my other blogs’ content to this site. Please bear with me as I post older content. 🙂