by Anne Smith, IBCLC
While breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world, babies are not born knowing how to nurse (although some do get the hang of it sooner than others). The art of breastfeeding in something that you learn by doing, and it gets easier with practice. In the old days, young women grew up seeing their family members and friends nurse. In today's society, many women have never seen anyone nurse a baby. The idea of taking classes or reading books to learn about breastfeeding would have made our great-grandmothers laugh, but in today's world, it makes sense to learn as much as you can about breastfeeding before your baby is born. If possible, attend a prenatal breastfeeding class. Many hospitals, doctor's offices, and health departments offer them at no charge, or for a small fee. Attend La Leche League meetings during your pregnancy. They provide a wide range of information about not only about nursing, but also about parenting, nutrition, childbirth options, and more. A lending library is available, and often has books that may not be found in your local library. You will also get a chance to meet other mothers who can quickly become new friends, and provide a built in support system to help you get through the challenging early weeks of nursing. Just seeing other mothers happily nursing their babies in a relaxed environment can help boost your confidence level. To find out about groups in your area, ask your doctor or childbirth educator, or call 1-800-LALECHE.
There are many books about breastfeeding on the market, and some are better than others. The Complete Book of Breastfeeding, Nursing Your Baby, The Nursing Mother's Companion, and Nursing Mother, Working Mother are good basic reference books. If you only buy one resource book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding is by far the best. It not only contains detailed information about all aspects of nursing, but also goes into detail about nutrition, starting solids, attachment parenting, and weaning. This is a book that you will refer to over and over again, not just during the early days of nursing. It is available from your local La Leche League group, or the library or bookstore.
One thing is for sure: childbirth and breastfeeding are two experiences that no amount of reading, attending classes, or watching videos can really prepare you for. What they mostly do is tell you about what the "average" birth experience or the "average" breastfeeding experience will be like. You need to remember that your baby hasn't read those books or taken those classed," and he doesn't have a clue that he is supposed to behave like the "average" baby. In fact, there is no such thing as an "average" baby. Each baby is unique, and so each nursing experience will be different. Often the mothers who have done the most intensive prenatal preparation are the ones who have problems adapting when things don't go "right by the book".
In addition to reading books or taking classes, it is important to have a support system in place in case you have questions (and you probably will) or if problems do develop. Find out about resources in your community. Often a La Leche Leader or a friend who has nursed can provide the information and support you need. If medical problems develop, find out how to contact a Lactation Consultant in your area. Your doctor, childbirth educator, or La Leche Leader should be able to put you in touch with a Lactation Consultant. Often your doctor doesn't have the specialized training in lactation to provide the intensive help that an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) or La Leche Leader can.
There are some basic things you can do from the beginning to help get breastfeeding off to a good start.
Breastfeed early. Put your baby to the breast as soon as possible after birth, while his sucking instincts are strongest. Babies are most alert during the first hour after birth, and soon settle into a sleepy stage than can last for hours or even days. Try to take advantage of this early alert period. Early nursings, before your milk comes in, let him practice while your nipple is soft and easy to grasp. His sucking helps contract your uterus, reduces bleeding, and helps speed up delivery of the placenta.