How to start your breastfeeding journey - Ruth Health

How to start your breastfeeding journey

Fast facts:

  • There are three stages of breast milk production, beginning during the second trimester, and three types of milk: colostrum, transitional milk, and mature milk.
  • Your breasts may feel sore or tender as milk comes in around 3-4 days postpartum, but there are resources to manage the discomfort of breast engorgement.
  • While breastfeeding may involve some trial and error early on, it shouldn’t be painful or difficult. A lactation consultant can help you navigate common challenges like latching issues or low milk production.

For many birthing people, breastfeeding can be an incredibly rewarding journey, but that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing. And since it’s a completely unique connection between you and your baby, it may take time to figure out what works best for you — which may be different from what works for others.

A lot of the learning will come from experience, but you can set yourself up for an easier start by familiarizing yourself with the basics, from the stages of breast milk production to common latching issues and more.

We’ve put together a quick guide of breastfeeding tips to help you prepare.

When does milk production begin?

Lactation, the process of producing breast milk, begins during the second trimester and unfolds in three stages.

Stage 1
The first stage of lactation can start as early as a few weeks into your second trimester and lasts until a few days postpartum. Hormonal changes prompt the mammary glands to begin milk production in preparation for your baby’s arrival.

You’ll probably start to see some changes in the appearance of your breasts, which will become fuller as your nipples and areolas darken. These changes indicate that your body is doing what it needs to do to nourish your baby.

As your levels of estrogen and progesterone rise, your milk ducts will grow and transport milk from the mammary glands to your nipples. You will begin to produce thick and nutrient-rich colostrum, the first type of breast milk that your baby will consume.

Individual experiences of early colostrum production vary. Some pregnant people cannot tell that they’re producing this milk while others experience breast milk leakage.

It’s all totally normal, and leaking colostrum doesn’t mean that you aren’t producing it or will struggle with milk production in the future.

You may continue to produce colostrum until up to five days postpartum.

Stage 2
Around 3-4 days after birth, breast milk production will ramp up, or “come in.” The hormone prolactin, which increases once you deliver the placenta, plays a big role in this process.

During this stage, your breast milk itself will change from colostrum to transitional milk, which is a mixture of colostrum and mature milk. This stage may last until about two weeks postpartum.

Your breasts may feel sore or tender during this time as they fill up with milk.

Tips to reduce the swelling and discomfort of breast engorgement:

  • Use a cold compress.
  • Try hand expression.
  • Discuss pain medication options with your doctor.
  • Try to fully empty your milk supply by alternating feeding positions (this can help drain milk from all areas of your breast), alternating breasts, and using a pump when you’re unable to nurse.
  • Speak with a lactation consultant for individualized tips and guidance.

Stage 3
From about the second week onward, your breasts will produce mature milk, which is full of nutrients that support your baby’s healthy growth. It typically has a thin and white appearance but may sometimes have a bluish tint.

When should I start breastfeeding?

If you have decided to breastfeed, it’s recommended to start as soon as possible after delivery, ideally within an hour after giving birth. Babies are born with a natural reflex that helps them find your breasts to begin nursing, and most newborns are interested in breastfeeding during their first hours of life.

They may not be able to feed very long at first, but even short spurts will provide nourishment early on and stimulate more breast milk production.

Breastfeeding after a c section is possible! Many women who've had a c section breastfeed for the first time in the recovery room, but some hospitals will let you try to breastfeed in the operating room. If you had general anesthesia, you may need to wait a few more hours.

It isn’t uncommon to experience some initial discomfort when breastfeeding after a c section while your body heals. Finding the right position can make all the difference. A side-lying position is often a good option for those who’ve delivered by a c section. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a lactation consultant or another member of your birthing team.

How often should I breastfeed my baby?

While every newborn is different, you should expect short but frequent breastfeeding sessions throughout your first days postpartum, which will help your body produce a good milk supply. In time, you’ll start to naturally adjust to your baby’s feeding habits.

While the average breastfed newborn feeds about 8-12 times in a 24-hour period, each baby’s needs are different. Some may want to feed every 2-3 hours, but others may want to feed in many short bursts over a few hours, which is called cluster feeding.

Babies on the sleepier side need to be woken up for breastfeeding sessions. Newborns under two weeks old and those who haven’t yet reached birth weight always need to be woken up if they sleep longer than four hours.

There are benefits to staying flexible and feeding your newborn on demand, rather than adhering to a strict schedule. Breastfeeding your baby when they’re hungry may give them comfort and security, and it will also help increase your breast milk production. As your baby grows, a regular schedule will likely begin to establish itself, which means more sleep for you!

What does breastfeeding feel like?

As you settle into the rhythm of your baby’s feeding patterns, you may be able to feel your breasts fill up with milk when it’s time to breastfeed. The let down reflex — your body’s response to your baby latching on to your breast, which triggers the flow of breast milk — may feel differently to each breastfeeding person.

Some women feel a tingling sensation in the breast or a feeling of release. Others don’t feel anything. These are all common physiological responses. (If your breasts leak in response to your baby’s cries or as feeding time approaches, that’s also natural and you can thank the let down reflex for that too.)

It isn’t uncommon to experience some initial discomfort during the first days or weeks of breastfeeding.

Try to be patient, with yourself and your baby — it often gets easier as your baby grows and gets better at latching.

We’re here to support your breastfeeding journey

If you’re still experiencing discomfort after a few weeks, a lactation consultant can offer suggestions and help you find what works best for you. Breastfeeding shouldn’t be a painful experience, and there are resources that can ease this journey.

Ruth Health offers nearly 24/7 virtual lactation support from Certified Lactation Counselors (CLCs) to provide individualized care on your time.

Learn how we can help with your breastfeeding journey.

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