Learning about breastfeeding your baby before they arrive can help alleviate any stress you may feel once they’re here. After all, one of the breastfeeding tips for new moms and parents we hear is the importance of being prepared .
In “Overdue,” our maternal health series made in partnership with Un-ruly and Gerber, doula and registered nurse Ebony Harvey gives an overview of things to learn about breastfeeding before your baby arrives.
Let’s walk through some of the basics of breast/chestfeeding and lactation (like its benefits and how it works) and offer you some food for thought on your nursing journey!
Table of Contents
- What are the benefits of human milk?
- How do you pump and hand express milk?
- How to get the breastfeeding and chestfeeding support you need
- Questions to ask yourself before you breastfeed or chestfeed
- 1. Do you have any issues that may affect your ability to breastfeed / chestfeed?
- 2. How will you fit breastfeeding / chestfeeding into your life?
- 3. How can you make breastfeeding / chestfeeding work at work?
- 4. How long do you want to breastfeed / chestfeed?
- 5. How will you take care of yourself while breastfeeding / chestfeeding?
What are the benefits of human milk?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) all recommend exclusively breastfeeding babies for at least the first six months of their lives, and supplementing solids with breast milk for up to two years.
Whether it comes from a donor or from you and your partner through induced lactation, feeding your baby human milk has an array of benefits that support their development and health.
Knowing the benefits of human milk is a one of the breastfeeding tips for new moms and parents we hear often. According to our community, it will help you feel connected to your baby and your feeding goals (and clap back at anyone who questions your decision).
Breast milk (or human milk to be inclusive of our nonbinary and gender non-confirming friends) makes a great first food for your baby. It…
Maintains a healthy digestive system: Human milk is made of a complex combination of nutrients, carbs, fats, and proteins that are easy on your baby’s developing digestive system. It also has probiotic qualities that help them poop.
“…Mother’s milk contains not only the bacteria necessary to help a baby break down food, but the food for the bacteria themselves to thrive,” Angela Garbes writes in her fascinating book Like a Mother (Amazon/Bookshop). “A breastfeeding mother isn’t keeping one organism alive—but actually hundreds of thousands of them.”
Protects against serious diseases and illnesses: According to the CDC, breastfed babies have lower risks of:
- asthma and other “severe lower respiratory diseases”
- type 1 diabetes
- acute ear infections
- sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in preemies
Since human milk has been shown to reduce the risk in diseases that our infants are more at risk for (like NEC), advocates argue that getting more Black babies human milk is key to closing the infant mortality gap between Black and white babies.
Supports your baby’s immune system and future health: Breast/chestfeeding passes your immunity on to your baby, adding another layer of protection. This is especially vital as baby’s immune systems are still new and developing.
When your baby suckles from you and/your partner, a truly phenomenal thing happens. Even though the baby can’t speak, they’re telling your body exactly what they need through their saliva and into your nipples. Your body takes that information and produces milk full of antibodies to fight against any bacteria, viruses, and germs your baby has encountered. Your milks adapts as the baby grows, changing to meet their developmental needs.
Feedings are a beautiful opportunity to bond with your baby while taking care of one of their most pressing needs.
Studies of women have found that breastfeeding has been linked to reduced instances of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and breast and ovarian cancers, the CDC reports.
How does breastfeeding and chestfeeding work?
All of those benefits are amazing. But you may be even more fascinated when you find out breast milk gets made in the first place.
Let’s give you a quick overview of how breastfeeding works!
Your body has a whole system of parts with the sole function to feed a baby. Alveoli, that is the milk-producing cells in your mammary tissue, can form “grape-like bunches called lobules,” writes Angela Garbes in Like a Mother.
The lobules (around 12-20 per breast) are connected together by milk ducts. When your body is ready to produce milk, your brain’s pituitary gland sends out the hormone prolactin to the alveoli cells. The cells then take proteins, sugars, and fat from your blood (!!!) to turn it into milk! (This is part of the reason why breasts get larger during pregnancy, Angela explains in her book—your blood volume and flow increases to support lactation.)
Yes, the milk is coming from your body, but you should by no means feel alone in your choice to breast/chestfeed.
The network of ducts carry your milk from your lobules to your areola, and form larger ducts that end at your nipple. (Fun fact: You actually have not one hole in your nipple, but up to seven holes in each one.)
Your milk comes out (also known as a “let down”) when hormones, triggered by hearing your baby’s cry or nipple/breast/chest stimulation, send contractions to your alveoli, starting up the milk production process.
This is why immediate skin-to-skin contact is so important. It signals to the body it’s time to let down.
“It is especially important for a parent with a C-section who desires to breastfeed to start latching or stimulation of the areolas by manual hand expression or breast pumps [because] C-sections bypass this natural way to alert the body,” Ebony explains.
When looking for breastfeeding tips for new moms and parents, remember this one. Although the milk comes out of your nipple, it’s called breast/chestfeeding, not nipple feeding. It works best for you and your baby when they have a deep and full latch on to as much of your areola as they can get in their mouth.
How do you pump and hand express milk?
Some people may practice exclusive, on-demand feeding—that is feeding their babies from their bodies whenever baby needs it.
Yet others may need to feed their child from a bottle or have others do so when they’re at work or otherwise unavailable. To do this you can express your milk manually, through hand expression, or mechanically with a breast pump.
Hand expressing your milk is pretty much just what it sounds like. You’re going to take your (clean) hand to your breast or chest and make a C shape. Then you’re going to use your fingers and thumb to repeatedly and gently press and massage around your chest.
This compresses your milk ducts and simulates your baby feeding, sending hormones that will encourage a letdown. You can then capture the expressed milk in a clean container or spoon.
If you’re not feeling well, a partner/support person can hand express for you. La Leche League has more helpful breastfeeding tips for new moms and parents on how to hand express milk.
For pumping, you can purchase a hand-operated pump, a battery-operated pump, or an electric breast pumping machine. Under the Affordable Care Act, your insurance must cover the cost of your breast pump. According to HealthCare.gov, while the company may have restrictions on whether the pump is manual or electric, they still have to pay. (Please note that breast pumps should be considered single user tools. Sharing or renting a pump isn’t recommended by the Food and Drug Administration and other entities because of the risk of contamination. )
When you use an electric breast pump, you put your areola and nipple into what’s known as a flange. A flange is a plastic horn shaped shield that is screwed on top of a storage container or bag.
“Flange size and fit are extremely important,” Ebony says while offering breastfeeding tips for new moms and parents. “Flanges that are too large or too small will not produce good results.”
When the machine is on, the suction imitates the experience of breast/chestfeeding and creates a tight seal between you and the machine. The pump draws out your milk, and it gets collected there.
Pumping can take up to 20 minutes depending on the machine and method. (There are some machines that support double pumping.) You can use that time to text a friend, watch some YouTube videos, or scroll through Instagram.
How to get the breastfeeding and chestfeeding support you need
Yes, the milk is coming from your body, but you should by no means feel alone in your choice to breast/chestfeed.
Getting support can make all the difference in your mental and physical health. It can play a role in whether or not you choose to breast/chestfeed at all, how long you do it for, and how confident you feel in your choice.
In an Instagram Live on breastfeeding tips for new moms and parents, international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) Andrea Syms-Brown introduced us to the concept of needing two types of support: “A home team and a pro team.”
Your pro team are the professionals who are on your birth and postpartum team. And the home team “are the people doing your laundry, bringing you food,” Andrea says. The people, like a partner, who you can say, “‘When I feel low, your job is to fill me and bring me back up.’”
Getting home team support from family and friends may be difficult for some of us. Some members of our community have outdated or trauma-informed opinions about breast/chestfeeding.
If you want, you can try to educate your loved ones about the benefits of breastfeeding to stem any negative comments about your choice. (You can hit them with some of the benefits of breast/chestfeeding we shared earlier.)
But if they don’t get it, that’s ok.
Look for breastfeeding support groups to find your people and resources. Happy Milk has a list of breastfeeding resources that are inclusive for our queer and trans fam.
Another source of community and breastfeeding tips for new moms and parents can come from taking a class with a lactation professional.
A class can help you know what to look out for and tricks you can use that wouldn’t be obvious to you as a first-time parent or as someone who had a hard time breastfeeding your kids in the past. They’ll also share some good tools you can use to make nursing easier and ways to troubleshoot common breastfeeding issues.
Bonus: You may even make a supportive friend who’ll be in new parenthood land with you!
Questions to ask yourself before you breastfeed or chestfeed
Now that you have a pretty good overview of lactation, here are some questions to consider as you begin your journey. Having a sense of how you’ll answer these questions can help you along your feeding journey.
1. Do you have any issues that may affect your ability to breastfeed / chestfeed?
Over the years, we’ve heard a lot of breastfeeding tips for new moms here at mater mea. And the one that sticks out the most is this: Know that everyone’s experience with breastfeeding and chestfeeding will be different.
Sometimes physical and emotional issues can complicate your journey. Now these challenges don’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to nurse your baby. (Not at all!) But they will require the support of trained lactation educators and your community to support you both through the issue.
There are chestfeeding and breastfeeding issues that you just can’t tough out on your on, friend. For example, people who have gestational diabetes or thyroid issues can experience delayed milk production. According to a 2021 study in Breastfeeding Medicine, in a survey of 8,150 women, of those who had gestational diabetes, 35% experienced a late let down.
‘There is no comparison,’ Ebony says. ‘Every baby’s needs and each parent’s journey is different.’
People who have had surgeries that altered their breast, chest, or nipples (e.g. a reduction, augmentation, or mastectomy) require a different type of support than what they would find in most parenting and pregnancy spaces. Some may have insufficient glandular tissue (IGT) disorder, where they don’t have enough of the tissue that synthesizes blood and turns it into milk.
Survivors of Trigger Warning: Click to reveal sexual assault and abuse may find breast/chestfeeding incredibly upsetting. They may choose not to do it at all, or may need support in figuring out the best way to navigate feedings with this in mind.
These considerations—and many others—require the support of a lactation consultant. Working with an international board certified lactation consultant can help you determine approaches that will meet your needs so you and your baby can get started on your feeding journey together!
2. How will you fit breastfeeding / chestfeeding into your life?
You may find that nursing your baby is incredibly convenient, says Ebony.
“You’re waking up to nurse [instead of] having to get up out of bed to make a bottle,” she says. “Milk from the body is already warm and formula has to be heated in the early months.”
But breastfeeding also may happen 8-12 times a day, according to the CDC. Sometimes more when your baby is cluster feeding. (That’s the period of time, usually during a growth spurt, when baby is eating more frequently and for shorter bursts of time.)
We’re not saying this to dissuade you, but to give you a heads up: You’ll need to plan to build your life around your baby’s feeding schedule.
With that in mind, take a look at your life to figure out the support you’ll need. Are you a single parent? Do you travel a lot for work? (We’ll talk a little bit more about work and breast/chestfeeding in a moment.)
Make sure you ask for the help you need at work and at home. This can help free you up to rest and develop your breastfeeding rhythm with your baby.
3. How can you make breastfeeding / chestfeeding work at work?
America’s stance on parental leave is shameful. Nearly every country in the world mandates some amount of paid parental leave. The hold outs? “New Guinea, Suriname, a few South Pacific island nations and the United States,” NPR reports.
The lack of paid family leave can unnecessarily complicate your plans to feed. That said, it doesn’t have to end them. It will just require you to what? Make a plan and get support!
Do you want to exclusively feed your baby your milk? If you work remotely or on a hybrid schedule, does your job offer flexible scheduling? That way you can work “after hours” and free up more time to nurse during the day.
Or maybe you’re planning on pumping. If so, what will your pumping schedule look like? Or would supplementing with formula be more helpful? When will you be going back to work? WhatToExpect.com recommends that you “start pumping two to three weeks beforehand to get the hang of it and build up a stockpile of milk.”
That said, the conversation around stockpiles may be upsetting, says Ebony. You may see freezers packed with baggies of milk on social media and compare those posts with your own milk production.
“There is no comparison,” Ebony says. “Every baby’s needs and each parent’s journey is different.”
If you don’t work at a company that prides itself on its parental support policies, you’re going to want to know what you’re potentially up against. Is your workplace conducive to pumping? Is there a clean space where you can store your milk and pump without fear of being interrupted by coworkers? The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes and protects your right to a private space to pump. (And no, boss/manager, a bathroom does not count.)
Read your company’s employee manual and see what it has to say about taking breaks and pumping at work. How long are your breaks? According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers “are required to provide a reasonable amount of break time to express milk as frequently as needed by the nursing mother.”
Go to your state’s Department of Labor website. See if they have any other information on what your rights are as a nursing parent. (Here’s a fact sheet for parents in New York!)
Once you know your rights and have a plan, talk to your supervisor before you go on maternity leave. Make them aware of what you’ll need when you return. Remember: You know your rights. You’re not asking for their permission—you’re informing them of your plans to feed your baby,
Once you’re back at work, “if the employer is not complying or creating a hostile environment, report this to HR and keep a paper trail of the incidents,” advises Ebony.
Check out our article on pumping at work for more.
4. How long do you want to breastfeed / chestfeed?
As mentioned earlier, several health organizations recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life and supplementing solid foods with breast milk for up to two years.
The question “How long should I breastfeed for?” can only really be answered by you and your baby. Determine what works for you both and build the support you need to make it happen.
Read the stories of 13 Black moms who decided to breastfeed past six months.
5. How will you take care of yourself while breastfeeding / chestfeeding?
Choosing to breast/chestfeed is an incredible opportunity to bond with your baby while supporting their health. It can be a beautiful and satisfying experience, knowing that your body is producing the best food for your baby. It can also be easy to get so caught up in the ins and outs of nursing that you forget you to take of yourself.
And that simply won’t do, boo!
Make your physical and mental health a priority while nursing your baby. Taking breaks, going to bed early to get more sleep, practicing good eating habits, and staying hydrated can give your body the reset it needs to keep feeding your baby.
We hope that these breastfeeding tips for new moms and parents will lead to a fulfilling and successful feeding journey for you once your baby is here! Feeling prepared for postpartum can make a huge difference in your well-being in those early days of new parenthood.
But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that sometimes breastfeeding and chestfeeding plans can change due to things within and outside of your control.
That’s why it’s important to have a backup, just-in-case plan. It’s like we talked about with creating a birth plan. Being prepared for all possible outcomes can help you feel as in control as possible if and when your initial plan needs to change.
Exclusive breastfeeding and chestfeeding aren’t your only option. You can alternate between nursing directly from your body to giving your baby a bottle of your pumped milk. There are parents who exclusively pump to feed their babies. There’s also baby formula, using donor milk from a milk bank, and, depending on your baby’s age and pediatrician’s recommendation, starting to introduce them to their new favorite foods.
You have options. And every single one is reflective of you being the best parent you can be given your unique circumstances. It can be easier said than one, but remember: It doesn’t matter what you see on social media or what you hear in the well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) words of loved ones and strangers. What ultimately matters is your and your baby’s health and happiness.