Studies have shown both the benefits of breast milk and the risks of not breastfeeding babies. But the breastfeeding process can be frustrating and daunting for some mothers and their newborns.
Dr. Nicole Hackman, a pediatrician and medical director for lactation services at Penn State Children's Hospital, said information and support often can help mothers overcome challenges that might keep them from successful breastfeeding.
Hackman said it helps when a woman can talk with her partner and family before the baby is born to let everyone know what her goals are for breastfeeding, and why they are important to her. "They will need to rely on that support during the challenging days," she said.
Breastfeeding is a work in progress for both the mother and the infant - and every situation is different - but Hackman has found some things can make the process easier for both parties.
The first is to give the mother and baby skin-to-skin contact for the first hour after birth. "Not only does that regulate the baby's heart rate, temperature and glucose level, but it can help the baby latch on and have the first breastfeeding session," she said.
Limiting visitors in the hospital and during a baby's first week of life also offers the pair private bonding time to learn to breast feed without the intimidation and interruptions that a parade of well-wishers may bring. This also allows the mother to rest while her baby is sleeping and to recover from delivery.
Hackman said mothers should attempt feedings any time the baby is awake during the first week of life. "Because breast milk volume is all about supply and demand, the more demand a baby puts on mom, the more her supply will increase," she said.
Lactation consultants work with new mothers to help their infants latch onto the breast without producing pain for the mother. "There may be initial discomfort, but something isn't right if there is pain throughout the feeding session," Hackman said. "Nipple pain is not normal. Mothers should be able to relax during the feeding."
Sometimes infants who are given bottles or pacifiers early on develop a different type of latch for plastic nipples which doesn't work well on a mother's breast. In those cases, the baby must be retaught the correct way to latch comfortably at the breast.
Although some mothers prefer to pump breast milk for their babies rather than breastfeeding, their babies can still reap the benefits of breast milk. Other moms simply cannot produce breast milk - or enough breast milk - to feed their offspring.
"It is a mother's choice," Hackman said. "Our role is to make sure they get the information they need to make an informed decision, and then to respect that decision and support it however we can."