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The first day of breastfeeding

The day of your baby’s birth is one of the most momentous days of your life, whether it’s your first baby or your fifth. On that day your life changes forever. And as if bringing a human into this world is not enough of an accomplishment for one day, you immediately have to get to work on figuring out breastfeeding. As a first time mom, or a first time breastfeeder, you may be wondering what to expect, or what you should do. Well, wonder no more, for help is here! This post will tell you exactly what you can expect for the first day of breastfeeding: from baby’s birth, through the first breastfeed, to what happens during the rest of the day.

First day

Baby’s arrival

As I’ve explained in another post, breastfeeding actually starts when labour starts: everything that happens during labour can potentially affect breastfeeding. So make sure you are well informed about the type of birth that you want, and that your doctor or midwife is on the same page as you. Make doubly sure that the hospital staff know that you are breastfeeding and that they must not give your baby anything else to drink!

Once baby is born, place baby in skin-to-skin contact for at least the first hour of his life (or, if baby is not able to be with you immediately for some reason, place baby in skin-to-skin contact as soon as you possibly can, no matter how much later it is). Skin-to-skin is the most effective way to get breastfeeding off to a good start. Once baby is in skin-to-skin, you can just relax and let nature take its course: as long as baby is healthy and alert, he will eventually find his own way to the breast and start breastfeeding.

The first breastfeed

If we follow the baby’s schedule, the first breastfeed usually happens sometime in the first 60-90 minutes after birth. It’s really very important that you don’t try to rush baby to the breast before he’s ready: he won’t take the breast and you’ll both get frustrated. Even worse, if baby has an unpleasant first experience with the breast he may simply decide that it’s not a nice place to be, and refuse to breastfeed altogether after that. Rather avoid all of this drama and just follow baby’s lead.

So how do you know when baby’s ready? It’s simple: watch baby’s cues (really, watching baby’s cues is probably 90% pf breastfeeding.) After crying out to say “hello world!” baby will want to rest for a while. This rest can last anything from 5 minutes to as long as an hour (even longer if you had pain medication during labour or if baby was separated from you, e.g. after a c-section). This is the time when you just need to relax and leave him be. Once he’s nice and rested, baby will start to look around (he’s looking for you!), and then gradually to move about looking for the nipple. Typical movements include feeling for the nipple with his hands, bobbing his head, wriggling his body and kicking out with his legs. These movements will gradually bring him closer to the breast until he’s right at the nipple (Obviously, you can help him and guide him). Baby may take some time to explore the nipple first, touching and licking it. Don’t rush to get baby to latch on now, he’s doing great! If you leave him be he will very soon latch on and start to suckle – all by himself.

For the first breastfeed, you really don’t have to worry about what you or baby are doing. The purpose is just to introduce baby to the breast and to let your body know “we have a live baby, it’s time to kick up the milk production into top gear!” Relax and enjoy this special time. There will be plenty of time for “getting it right” later.

The next few hours

After the first feed, baby will probably want a bit of a rest – being born and starting to breastfeed took a lot out of him! At this stage, most babies have a good, long sleep; easily as long as 6-8 hours. Don’t bother trying to wake baby up to breastfeed during this time, he’ll be very soundly asleep. Rather use the opportunity to get some sleep yourself!

As soon as you notice baby starting to squirm and starting to wake up, you can offer the breast again. Don’t try to rock baby back to sleep without breastfeeding, no matter how short a time it’s been since his last feed: the most important thing baby needs at this stage is to breastfeed as much as possible. A lot of breastfeeding in the first few weeks is the first key to building a great milk supply.

Breastfeed, breastfeed and breastfeed some more!

I will say this again, so that you don’t forget it: you can’t breastfeed too often. The more the better! Some well-meaning but ill-informed people may tell you that the fact that your baby is constantly on the breast means he’s hungry and you don’t have enough milk, but don’t you believe it! The truth is that it is normal and healthy for newborns to feed very, very often. In fact, it’s the only way that they can actually get enough milk into their bodies:

  • The first milk (colostrum) is very thick and sticky. It’s actually pretty hard work to get it out of the breast – try expressing some and you’ll see. So the baby has to suck for quite some time to get enough colostrum out to fill his tummy.
  • Baby’s tummy is tiny – only about 5-7ml (the amount that fits in a teaspoon!). Because he can only take in such a small volume of milk at a time, he has to take in many feeds to get enough milk over a 24-hour period. Imagine you had to eat your entire day’s food in portions of one spoon at a time, and you’ll start to understand why baby needs so many feeds.
  • In the womb, baby was getting food 24/7/365 through the umbilical cord. It takes a while for his metabolism to figure out how to deal with a situation of “now we’re eating, now we’re not eating.” That’s why babies who are not fed frequently enough easily get low blood sugar.

It’s also important to remember that breastfeeding is about a lot more than just food. Baby is still getting used to this big, loud scary world, and the breast is the one place where he feels safe and secure. Suckling at the breast helps baby to calm down: in fact, it’s so potent that breastfeeding can be used as a “painkiller” during minor painful procedures like injections (remember that when they come to vaccinate your baby!)

But my baby doesn’t want to breastfeed!

Sometimes we find a baby that does the exact opposite to what was described above. The baby is extremely sleep and not interested in breastfeeding, or only breastfeeds for short periods of time. Don’t panic! We’ll look at both cases:

The quick feeder

Whilst frequent, long feeds are the norm in the early days, some babies are really quick and efficient feeders from day one. My first baby was a long and leisurely feeder, but my second could finish a feed in five minutes flat from day one. Luckily I knew a bit more about breastfeeding by then, or I might have panicked about this baby that doesn’t want to breastfeed! If you have a baby who takes quick feeds, ask yourself the following questions: is baby waking up by himself to breastfeed, without having to be woken up? Does baby seem satisfied after feeding, and uninterested in the breast if you offer it again? Can you see or hear baby swallowing while he feeds? Did baby have at least one wet and one dirty nappy in the first 24 hours? If you answer yes to all those questions, your baby is probably doing absolutely fine, he’s just a very efficient feeder!

The sleepy baby

Some babies sleep so soundly after birth that they cannot be woken up to feed at all. I’ve often seen this happen with babies born via c-section, and also in normal births where it was a long and difficult labour or where the mom received pain medications. The important thing is, as always, not to panic: your baby will be absolutely fine without feeding for at least 24 hours as long as he is in skin-to-skin contact. Constant skin-to-skin contact helps baby’s metabolism to stay regulated (so that his blood sugar doesn’t drop) and it is by far the most effective way to stimulate baby’s built-in feeding reflexes. I’ve yet to see a case where skin-to-skin contact didn’t do the trick.

If your baby doesn’t take the breast at all in the first 6-8 hours after birth, it is a good idea to start hand expressing to stimulate your milk production. At this stage, while there is only colostrum in the breast, hand expressing is more effective than pumping. You may not get any milk out – even experienced hand-expressers like me struggle to get more than a few drops on the first day! The idea of expressing is just to stimulate your breasts and tell them to start increasing milk production. Express every 2-3 hours until baby starts to suckle. If you get any drops of colostrum out, pick them up with your fingertip and put them in baby’s mouth. These drops of colostrum, combined with skin-to-skin contact, will usually get baby awake and drinking before long.

Looking ahead

I truly hope that your first day of breastfeeding goes off without a hitch – there’s plenty of hard work ahead! (Look at this post to see what you can expect over the next two weeks). And always remember: even if things start out very badly and every conceivable thing goes wrong, it’s never the end of the road. Persevere, and get skilled help if you need it. May this be the first of many, many happy days of breastfeeding!

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