A guide to the stages of breastfeeding - Ruth Health

A guide to the stages of breastfeeding

Fast facts: 

  • During the first six months, many babies get enough nutrients from breast milk alone. It is safe to supplement breast milk with formula.
  • If you are returning to work, practice using a pump or expressing breast milk by hand in advance.
  • Many babies begin eating solids around six months. Your pediatrician will let you know when your child is ready.
  • How long to breastfeed is up to you. You’ll likely encounter many differing opinions, so trust your instincts. No one knows what you need better than you.

The journey of breastfeeding evolves over time, with different breastfeeding stages. As your baby grows, their feeding routine and needs will change.

You may be wondering when it’s time to introduce solids — and how often to breastfeed once you have. For some moms, the journey also involves navigating a return to work.

Here’s an overview of what to expect as you feed your baby throughout the many breastfeeding stages.

The first six months: settling into a rhythm

If you have decided to breastfeed, it’s recommended to start as soon as possible after delivery, ideally within an hour after giving birth. While breastfed babies have different feeding needs, short but frequent breastfeeding sessions in the first days after birth can stimulate milk production.

Expect some trial and error as you settle into a rhythm with your baby. In addition, many women experience common breastfeeding problems, from latching issues to breast infection and low milk supply

Breastfeeding should not be painful or difficult. If you face any of these challenges, a lactation consultant can offer individualized support.

Supplementing breast milk with formula

Many babies get enough nutrients from breast milk alone during the first six months of breastfeeding. However, it is safe to supplement breast milk with formula. To maintain your milk supply when supplementing with formula, pump each time your baby gets a bottle.

Sometimes a pediatrician will recommend supplementing with formula for medical reasons such as the following.

  • Your baby has fewer than six wet diapers over the course of 24 hours.
  • Your baby is fussy or shows a sign of hunger shortly after a breastfeeding session.
  • Your baby has jaundice or low blood sugar in their first few days.
  • Your baby has slow weight gain or a weight loss of more than 10% of body weight in their first few days.

When supplementing breast milk with formula for a non-medical reason, it is suggested to breastfeed for at least a month, so that you can produce a steady milk supply. Adding formula gradually can make the transition easier.

Wait to introduce solids until your pediatrician lets you know that it’s appropriate to do so. This typically happens around the sixth month, but each baby’s needs are different.

Introducing a bottle

Many experts recommend introducing a bottle when your baby is three to four weeks old. Older babies may be more likely to refuse a bottle, but introducing a bottle before the breastfeeding relationship has been established can lead to nipple confusion. This is when a baby has difficulty switching between a bottle and a breast.

Returning to work

Some breastfeeding individuals go back to work during this time. Preparing for the transition in advance can make it easier. A lactation consultant can help you navigate the return.

Book a session with a Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) today.

Using a breast pump or expressing your milk by hand can be a very different experience from feeding your baby. Many women find it helpful to practice ahead of time in a safe, comfortable environment.

You will need to pump or express milk at the times you would feed your baby. Pumping may take as little as 10-15 minutes, but sometimes you may need more time. Some breastfeeding individuals find hands-free breast pumps convenient to use while at work.

Learn how to properly store breast milk.

6-12 months breastfeeding: introducing solids

By six months, most babies need more calories and nutrients than they receive from breast milk alone and are ready for solids. 

This isn’t the time to wean completely — breast milk or formula will continue to be an important part of their diet, even as they start to explore other tastes.

Iron is especially important, as it supports your baby’s neurological development. There are different forms of iron. Heme iron can be found in animal products such as red meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs. This type of iron is more easily absorbed by the body. 

Non-heme iron is found in iron-fortified cereals, beans, lentils, and leafy green vegetables. It is less easily absorbed by the body.

Combining sources of non-heme iron with vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, and broccoli can help your baby more easily absorb iron.

Some babies need more iron than others. Your pediatrician will monitor your child’s iron levels and make sure they are consuming a sufficient amount.

Here’s a high-level timeline for introducing solids. Always consult a healthcare professional about your child’s needs.

Six to seven months

  • Slowly introduce iron-rich foods. Many babies first start with iron-fortified cereal.
  • Give your baby foods that they can easily swallow such as purees, well-mashed fruits and vegetables, and minced meats.
  • Continue your breastfeeding routine as you begin adding solids. This will help you maintain your milk supply. If possible, breastfeed before feeding your baby solids, rather than after.

Eight to nine months

  • Continue to serve your baby mashed fruits and vegetables and soft meats.
  • Give your child water using a cup.
  • To support the development of fine motor skills, it’s important to gradually incorporate foods your child can eat with their fingers. You can give your baby dry cereal, crackers, and cooked vegetables, among other options.
  • Continue to breastfeed throughout the day, as breast milk contains important nutrients. Many babies get at least half of their daily calories from breast milk up to nine months.

Nine to twelve months

  • Your baby can start to try the same food as the rest of the family, so long as it’s safe. Consult your pediatrician about appropriate options.
  • Continue to breastfeed. Many babies need about 24 ounces of breast milk or formula each day at this age.

One year and beyond: building a healthy diet

By a year, many babies are ready to eat a wider variety of healthy foods. This is also typically when cow’s milk is introduced as a beverage.

How long to breastfeed is up to you. It’s possible to continue beyond 12 months if your milk supply allows. You’ll likely encounter many differing opinions, so trust your instincts. No one knows what you need better than you.

Some children continue to rely on breast milk for many nutrients while others consume more solids than breast milk. Speak with your pediatrician if you have questions about the role of breast milk in your child’s diet at this stage.

If you begin weaning your baby, do so gradually to avoid engorgement or breast infections such as mastitis.

Lactation support from Ruth Health

Ruth Health offers nearly 24/7 virtual lactation support from Certified Lactation Counselors (CLCs) to provide individualized care on your time. You can use this support to begin preparing for the journey of breastfeeding even before your baby arrives.

Learn how we can help with your breastfeeding journey and sign up below to join our community.

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