Preparing to breastfeed can feel overwhelming and for many expectant and new mums it can feel like the first true test of motherhood. Considering you’ve just spent nine months growing a tiny human and dealing with all the side effects that come with pregnancy and labour, this can feel quite overwhelming.
Coupled with the fact that there is so much information available and a lot of conflicting advice - from perfecting the perfect latch to snacks for increasing supply - it can be hard to know who to turn to for breastfeeding knowledge and know-how before your baby arrives.
Research is the best way to prepare for breastfeeding
However, preparing for breastfeeding doesn’t need to be this way and in fact, just by doing some research before your baby is born, you have already taken one of the biggest and most important steps you can to prepare to breastfeed your baby. Very simply, knowledge is power as you prepare for breastfeeding your newborn.
The best place to begin is usually at the very start. So first things first - in order to understand how to best prepare for breastfeeding it’s important to understand where your breast milk supply comes from.
Where does my milk supply come from?
You might not realise it quite yet, but your breast milk supply will become a big talking point over the next few weeks and months, second only to your beautiful new baby.
Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing whether or not you will have a low supply, if your baby will take to breastfeeding like a duck to water, or whether or not there will be some teething issues (pardon the pun) along the way.
But, regardless of where your breastfeeding journey will fall on the spectrum, it’s important to know where your breast milk supply comes from and how you can help keep things topped up.
The science lesson
Did you know that your breastfeeding journey starts long before baby arrives?
The hormone progesterone plays a key role in breastfeeding – both when you’re pregnant and after you give birth. While you’re still pregnant, there's more progesterone in your body than usual, which helps stop your breasts from releasing the milk that is building up. But, if you’ve happened to notice some leakage during your pregnancy, don’t worry – that’s totally normal!
Towards the end of your pregnancy, your breasts will feel “full.” That’s colostrum - the nutrient-packed first milk - beginning to be produced.
Once you give birth, a couple of things will happen to allow your breast milk to flow: the hormone prolactin increases, and progesterone levels drop. The first few breastfeeding meals after birth are small for baby, but full of that liquid gold colostrum.
How is breast milk made?
Breast milk is produced in the glandular tissue the breasts, called alveoli. The smooth muscle tissue around each tiny milk-producing cell contracts when hormones are released. These contractions propel milk down the milk ducts to the openings in the nipple and is known as ‘let down’.
Let down is triggered by your baby’s cry and touch, nipple stimulation, and sucking. During a feeding, you’ll have several let downs, but during the first let down you may notice a tingling or throbbing sensation in your breasts or nipples - this is normal.
As you baby grows, your breastmilk will change to meet their needs. As you continue to breastfeed, that golden coloured colostrum will start to turn a more familiar milk white colour and it will continue to change and adapt as your breastfeeding connection with your baby tells your body what your baby needs.
Why you might want to harvest colostrum
Some pregnant women are advised to express and store their colostrum during the last few weeks of pregnancy. There is no need to do this if you're having a straightforward pregnancy, but if are having a baby with a cleft lip or palate, you baby has a congenital condition or Down’s syndrome, or you have gestational diabetes, high blood pressure or have had breast surgery, then harvesting colostrum may be the best way to ensure your baby gets this beneficial liquid.
If harvesting colostrum is a personal choice, or you’ve been advised to do this by a health professional, speak to your midwife for tips on the best way to express and store it ready for your baby’s birth.
Familiarise yourself with breastfeeding positions and holds
This isn’t something you’ll be able to decide on in advance, as choosing the right breastfeeding position will be a little bit of a trial-and-error type situation for both you and baby when they arrive. Each mum and baby will find their own preferred feeding position, and what works for one mum and baby, probably won’t work for the next.
However, it’s important to learn and practice those breastfeeding positions in advance of baby’s arrival, so that if one doesn’t work for either of you, you have a backup breastfeeding position locked and loaded.
There are lots of breastfeeding positions out there and you’ll find pictures and demonstrations of these online. Or you can ask your midwife to demonstrate them to you at your next appointment or antenatal class.
You could even look for a local breastfeeding class, where you'll be guided and supported through your breastfeeding journey by a qualified breastfeeding expert who will help you get prepared. They are sometimes known as a lactation consultant.
A breastfeeding class is also a good place to meet other new mums and mums-to-be before baby is born. This could be the early foundations of your support network as you progress on your journey through motherhood.
Four of the more common breastfeeding positions are:
This is the ‘traditional’ breastfeeding hold that you’ll already be familiar with.
Rugby ball hold
In this breastfeeding position baby lies along your arm and tucked into your side underneath your arm
This is a good breastfeeding position for night feeds. Mum and baby lie on their sides next to one another, belly-to-belly.
However, these are just a few.
There are lots of positions out there to help make your breastfeeding journey work for you and baby and whichever breastfeeding position you choose, remember to gather up everything you’ll need before you start (snack, water mobile, book/ tv remote) - you could be there for a while!
What accessories will I need for breastfeeding?
The first few days with your new baby will probably be quite hectic, so it pays to prepare and research what accessories
you might need to support your breastfeeding journey.
Some things you may want to consider buying in advance of your new baby’s arrival include:
- Nursing bras and easy access clothing
- Nursing nightdresses or pyjamas
- A breastfeeding pillow - these help you support baby and relieve sore arms from long feeds
- Disposable or washable nursing pads (in case of any leaks - it happens!)
- Muslin cloths
- Nipple cream for sore nipples
- Contact details of a lactation consultant, breastfeeding specialist, or your local midwife helpline
- A breast pump, if you decide you're going to use one
Decide if you’re going to pump, research equipment and storage solutions
Breastfeeding is a very personal journey. Some women choose to exclusively nurse their baby on the breast and others, for lots of reasons - including returning to work or wanting to let their partner take the odd night feed - choose to pump their breast milk too.
Should I pump?
It really does come down to personal choice and what is going to suit you, your family and your new baby. Some women are exclusive pumpers, meaning their baby only feeds expressed breastmilk from a bottle. Whatever you decide is OK – you just need to make sure you’re comfortable with your choice.
Some women use a breast pump once or twice a day so that they have a bottle on-hand for occasional feedings by others. And then some women never pump breast milk because they are never separated from their child.
To decide what is going to be best for you and your baby, you have to evaluate your lifestyle. You should consider things like what your plans are at the end of your maternity leave. If there is a set date that you will be returning to work, and you still want to continue breastfeeding, then you’ll probably need to breast pump.
If your plans don’t involve daily separation from your baby, but you think you’ll want an occasional break from breastfeeding, then this is another reason you might decide to pump.
You also don’t have to start pumping straight away. You might decide to feed your newborn exclusively from the breast for a little while and then move to pumping further down the line, or gradually introduce a bottle and pumped breastmilk when your baby is a little older and you’re nearing a return to work.
In fact, a lactation consultant may recommend holding off on pumping until a breastfeeding routine is established.
A pump can also be a useful tool to have around if you need relieve engorgement, which is when your breasts become overly full, or to help establish your supply.
What will I need to buy?
- A pump - once you've decided what your breastfeeding routine will look like, you should decide on a breast pump
. There are two types: manual and electric.
- A pumping bra - you will also need to think about whether or not you need a specific bra for pumping or whether your nursing bras will accommodate a breast pump.
- Storage - if you're planning on pumping and storing your breastmilk then you will need to think about ways to store it. Breastmilk can be kept in bottles in the fridge for up to 48 hours and frozen for much longer. You can buy bags specifically for storing it in the freezer.
- Bottles - do a little bit of research and decide which brand of bottles will best suit you and your new baby. Some breastfed babies take a little while to accept a bottle, and you may need to try a few brands before you find one that suits your baby.
Your breastfeeding journey is unique and personal to you
Remember, there is no one size fits all approach to breastfeeding, and these are just some of the things you should think about, and consider stocking up on, before you begin your own breastfeeding journey.
If you need breastfeeding support then reach out to your midwife or your local support group who will be able to give you tailored, professional advice.
Breastfeeding isn’t for everyone – and you will bond just as much with your baby if you decide to bottle feed. But for those of you who choose to breastfeed – do your prep work before your baby is born and then you’ll be able to enjoy every moment!