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Breastfeeding basics

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Ask any expert and they'll tell you that breastfeeding is the most natural of a woman's mothering instincts -- an almost indescribable urge, some say, to both nurture and nourish your newborn child.

However, as any experienced mother can tell you, actually going about feeding a newborn might feel anything but normal or natural, at least in the beginning. Mother Nature may be sending breastfeeding signals your way, but when it comes to knowing exactly what to do you could find yourself at a loss.

Lots of women wonder why, if breastfeeding is such a normal, natural thing, the skills don't just magically appear. The answer may simply be a lack of exposure to the process itself. In previous generations, little girls watched their mothers breastfeed, sisters watched each other -- and women generally had a support system as well as role models. Many women nowadays don’t have any experience on which to draw and it's not uncommon for some to feel awkward or even uncomfortable.

The good news is that, with just a little bit of knowledge and some patience, you can quickly and easily master the art of breastfeeding.

Latching on

As you are learning to breastfeed, your baby is also learning to eat. As natural as the suckling instinct is, don't be surprised if your new little bundle of joy has a bit of trouble mastering what experts call ’latching on’. This is the way babies need to attach to their mother's breast to receive milk.

In addition, having a good ’latch’ also helps mum avoid sore nipples and keeps the breasts from becoming engorged with milk, which in turn can reduce the risk of infection.

To help ensure a good latch, hold your breast and touch your nipple to the centre of your baby's lips. This will encourage what is called the ’rooting reflex’, sending a signal to your baby to open his or her mouth.

As this occurs gently pull your baby toward your breast, allowing your nipple and at least one inch of your entire areola (the dark area surrounding your nipple) to disappear into your baby's mouth. Your baby's lips should look full and pouting, as if they were blowing you a kiss. One of the biggest mistakes women make is giving their baby only their nipple to suck. In order for proper latching to take place, much more of the breast must go into the baby's mouth. This is one reason why it's so important that the mouth be as wide as possible when a breastfeeding session begins. You can encourage your baby to open his mouth wide by gently stroking his top lip.

Here are some tips to help ensure a proper latch -- particularly the first few times you breastfeed. Place your opposite hand underneath your breast and, using your thumb, gently push up under your areola and position more of your breast in your baby's mouth, making sure not to get your fingers inside.

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