New mothers are encouraged to nurse as soon as they give birth, and the American Academy of Pediatrics calls it the “normative standard for infant feeding and nutrition.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend women breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, and cite research showing numerous health benefits for the baby and mother. According to research from the American College of Pediatrics, any amount of breastfeeding can lower the chance of obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, Gastroenteritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and SIDS. Nursing for more than three months can reduce the risk of asthma, and Type 1 Diabetes, and nursing for six months or longer can decrease the risk of Leukemia and Upper respiratory tract infections.

For the baby, breastfeeding is thought to protect from pneumonia, colds, viruses, cardiovascular diseases, and type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, mothers who breastfeed have a reduced risk of ovarian cancer and osteoporosis.

But just because nursing is natural and “normative,” it isn’t always instinctual. Many new moms discover that breastfeeding is harder than it looks, and they can often benefit from support and guidance.

“The biggest surprise is people say it is natural, babies know how to do it, mothers know how to do it, [then] why am I having issues,” explains Sharon Birdseye a lactation consultant, registered nurse, and international board-certified lactation consultant, who runs Lactation Consultants of Atlanta. “I think they don’t realize that it is a learned art.”

In honor of National Breastfeeding Month, here are some of the things Birdseye, who has been a lactation consultant for over 30 years, recommends new mothers think about if they are pregnant, thinking of becoming pregnant, or currently breastfeeding.

Consider taking a breastfeeding class before you give birth.
When you come home from the hospital with a newborn, exhausted and bleary-eyed, it can be very helpful if you already know what to expect, Birdseye says. “Usually I try to reach people in the prenatal stage if possible, there are a lot of opportunities to reach people in the doctor’s office or private lactation classes. More knowledge is going to [yield] a more relaxed mother and father,” Birdseye says. “There is so much to overwhelm new parents, and as you get closer to your due date you are often thinking more about the labor and delivery. But taking a breastfeeding class midway through your pregnancy can be helpful.”

The most important thing is that the baby receives nourishment. If the mother needs to use formula, that’s ok.
“The number one rule is to feed the baby,” Birdseye says. “The number two rule is if it can be breast milk, that is preferred over formula. If, for some reason, the mother is unable to feed the baby at the moment, we can have her pump and feed the baby. Or, if she is suffering from a very low milk supply, and formula is the only thing that can be given, you still have to make sure the baby is fed.”

Try to focus on skin to skin contact in the early days.
Close contact between mother and baby can be very helpful in encouraging breastfeeding. “Babies have a lot of instinctive behavior that they are born with that helps them get to the breast,” Birdseye says. “Sometimes mothers aren’t given the opportunity to do that early on. it might be related to the delivery or some other reason, but hospitals now are really trying to promote that early skin to skin.”

It may take a little time to get it right, and you and your baby may not instantly master it. That’s ok.
“Mothers don’t always seek out help early because a lot of times they feel like they just have to give it some time, or they are doing something wrong,” Birdseye says. “But many times, the mother is not doing anything wrong.”

If you have having trouble, you might consider reaching out to a lactation consultant. Best practice is to identify a lactation consultant before your baby is born, and reach out them when you go into labor to let them know you may need their assistance that week. These individuals specialize in the art of breastfeeding, and they can help you fix how the baby’s mouth is attaching to the breast, or their “latch.” A lactation consultant can also help perfect the position that you are holding the baby, and answer any questions you might have about the baby’s eating schedule, how they are gaining weight, and when you should think about weaning.

Although the real “milk” doesn’t arrive until several days after giving birth, you already have everything you need.
“One of the things that mothers are told or that they read is that the milk comes three days after birth, and there is no milk there before that,” Birdseye says. “But what they don’t realize is that there is colostrum present, and that is early milk that is very nutritious and it helps stabilize the baby’s blood sugar, and it is thick and rich and has a lot of antioxidants as well as a lot of protein.” Mothers are also encouraged to nurse even before the milk shows up, because as the colostrum comes out more milk can be produced.

It shouldn’t hurt, if it does, call your doctor or lactation consultant.
“Breastfeeding is not supposed to be painful. But many times, [women] are told by family members or friends that it is going to hurt, and they just have to get used to it, or they have to have their nipples toughen-up,” Birdseye says. “If breastfeeding is painful, they need to get help right away to examine the cause of that pain. It could be the way the baby is being positioned, the way the baby is latching, there are a variety of reasons a mother might experience pain, but it shouldn’t be ignored.”

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