Are you thinking about breastfeeding?
One of the many questions you may be asking yourself during pregnancy is how you are going to feed your baby.
While learning about breastfeeding techniques and the benefits of breastfeeding during pregnancy can help you to get breastfeeding off to a good start, you do not have to decide until your baby is born.
The WHO and UNICEF recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life; and introduction of nutritionally adequate and safe solid foods at six months together with continued breastfeeding for up to two years of age or beyond (WHO, 2020).
However, providing breast milk for your baby for any amount of time has a positive effect. Even just offering your baby colostrum, your first breast milk after birth which is sometimes also called ‘liquid gold’ because of its yellow colour, can make a significant difference. Colostrum lines your baby’s stomach with a protective layer, it is sometimes referred to as baby’s ‘first vaccination’. But the longer the period of breastfeeding lasts, the longer the protection and benefits.
What are the key benefits of breast milk for my baby?
One of the main benefits of breast milk is the protection from illness and infections. When you come into contact with a virus or bacteria, your body produces specific antibodies against the particular intruder. These antibodies are then passed onto your baby via your breast milk to help protect your baby or fight infection.
Breast milk not only contains antibodies, but it is also packed with essential enzymes, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids for cognitive development and growth factors. It is incredibly tailored to your baby’s individual needs at each developmental stage. Breast milk is more easily digested than formula which is why breastfed babies rarely suffer from constipation.
Breastfed babies are therefore known to have reduced risks of:
- Gastroenteritis (tummy bugs), ear infections, respiratory illnesses such as asthma and allergies
- Obesity and cardiovascular disease
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
What are the benefits of breastfeeding for me?
Breastfeeding also plays an important role in supporting the mother’s health and wellbeing. When a mother breastfeeds, the hormone oxytocin is released which causes the womb to contract and may decrease the amount of bleeding after giving birth. Oxytocin is also called the love hormone which helps to build a bond with your baby.
Breastfeeding burns as many as 500 extra calories per day, which may make it easier to lose the weight you gained during pregnancy.
While it may take you some time at first to fully establish breastfeeding, once breastfeeding is going well, it is very convenient with no need to sterilise or warm up milk.
Breastfeeding can also reduce the risk of certain illnesses for mothers, such as:
- Breast and ovarian cancer
- Osteoporosis (weak bones)
How does my body prepare to breastfeed?
Your breasts undergo some major changes during pregnancy to prepare for breastfeeding. In fact, breast changes are often one of the first signs which may make you think you could be pregnant.
- The areola (the darker area around the nipple) increases in size and pigmentation which will help your baby to latch on after birth.
- The Montgomery's glands, tiny bumps on your areola, enlarge. They secrete an oily substance which keeps the areola and nipple elastic and healthy.
- From around 16 weeks of pregnancy the milk-making cells become active. Therefore, some mums experience the leakage of colostrum. Note that, it doesn’t mean your milk supply will be low if you don’t notice any colostrum during pregnancy.
- By the time your milk comes in around day three or four postpartum, your breasts are likely to be almost one-and half times bigger than before you became pregnant.
While you are growing your baby on the inside, your body is already preparing to continue to grow your baby on the outside. Isn’t that amazing?!
Where can I get lactation support if I choose to breastfeed?
It is true that breastfeeding is the most natural way to feed a baby, but it doesn’t always come naturally and is a skill that both you and your baby will learn together. Research has shown that mothers who receive the right supports are more likely to breastfeed successfully. Building a support network during pregnancy and knowing whom to contact if you need reassurance can help you to overcome common breastfeeding challenges such as latching difficulties, sore nipples or even mastitis.
Discuss your feeding plans with your maternity care provider, GP and family so that they can best support you when your baby arrives.
Many maternity hospitals and private lactation consultants offer antenatal breastfeeding preparation classes and postnatal support.
- The Association of Lactation Consultants in Ireland (alcireland.ie) have published a directory of practising lactation consultants across Ireland.
- The HSE My Child website provides free breastfeeding information including a Live Chat with a breastfeeding expert.
Most midwives in hospitals are trained in breastfeeding support and many maternity hospitals have a designated midwife specialist in lactation.
- Your public health nurse will usually visit you at home after discharge from hospital. She may also run a breastfeeding support group in your area.
- Many voluntary groups such as Cuidiú, Friends of Breastfeeding and the La Leche League also offer breastfeeding support groups. Most breastfeeding classes and support groups are currently held online because of the pandemic.