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Breastfeeding overview

Breastfeeding provides benefits to both baby and mother, but it is not always straightforward at first. Babies need to learn how to 'latch on' and mothers often experience breastfeeding problems. However, most women can breastfeed.

At first, your breasts will supply your baby with colostrum, a mixture packed with proteins, vitamins, enzymes and agents to fight off infections. After a few days, the colostrum will be replaced with mature milk.

The milk glands in the breast, which contain clusters of tiny sacs known as alveoli, produce and store mature milk. Between 2 to 5 days after giving birth, you may notice your milk 'coming in', with your breasts feeling and looking fuller from an increase in milk production.

The hormone oxytocin will be released when your baby feeds at your breast. This hormone causes muscle cells near the alveoli to contract and squeeze out milk. This is known as the let-down reflex, and it can occur a number of times each time you breastfeed. Some mothers feel a tingling sensation, but others are unaware of it. Some women experience milk flow when they hear their babies cry, or even just think about them. When milk is removed from the breast, new milk will be produced to replace it - this means mothers have a steady supply of milk for their baby.

Why should I breastfeed?

A mother's breast milk is a natural food for a baby, and it is recommended by health experts as an exclusive food for the first 6 months of a baby's life. The baby doesn’t need any food or drink other than breast milk for this period. It contains everything a baby needs to stay healthy, including hormones for growing and antibodies to fight off infections.

Breastfed babies are less likely to have stomach bugs, chest infections, ear infections or urine infections. They are also less likely to develop diabetes in childhood or eczema, or to become overweight.

Breastfeeding will help you and your baby bond emotionally and give your baby a sense of security. Mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk of developing diabetes in later life and have a reduced risk of developing breast cancer and some types of ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding also helps a mother's uterus return to its pre-birth size.

Although most women can breastfeed, a few medical reasons may rule out this option. Women receiving chemotherapy for cancer, for example, or who are taking certain prescription medicines should not breastfeed.

When should I start breastfeeding?

The first breastfeed should occur within the first hour after birth, and is helped by starting direct skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth. This means your skin having direct contact with your baby's skin. Skin-to-skin contact can help calm your baby, and your body will help keep your baby warm, but you can also place a blanket on top.

Even if you have a caesarean, you can still have skin-to-skin contact straight after birth. If your baby needs to be in a special care unit, it may not be possible to breastfeed, but you can provide breast milk by expressing it.

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