Breast feeding is the most natural way to feed your baby, but that doesnt mean that the technique comes naturally to every mother-baby pair. In fact, it can take several weeks to get started, and a few months to feel completely skilled. Initial setbacks are more common with first babies, mothers who are under stress (which can hamper the let-down of milk), and mothers with fair or delicate skin, who may experience more nipple irritation.
Several sources of help are available to mothers starting breast feeding. If youre short on friends and relatives who have breast-feeding experience, a group called La Leche League can help; ask your doctor or hospital for a referral. Even if you didnt start nursing right after birth, it may be possible to restart your milk supply with some expert advice.
How long you breast feed is as individual a decision as whether to breast feed at all. Ideally, breast feeding should be continued for at least the first three months a key period for boosting the babys immune system with maternal antibodies and, possibly, reducing the likelihood of food and other allergies (especially in families with a history of allergic problems).
If you must return to work or find that, for whatever reason, breast feeding isnt right for you, your baby will thrive on a properly selected and prepared formula. But if you and your baby are both enjoying nursing, theres no reason to give it up entirely until the baby is at least a year old or even older.
Whenever you decide to wean, ask your doctor for specific advice on making the switch to formula. The breasts work on a supply and demand principle, so they should produce less milk as your baby nurses less. However, if you experience painful engorgement of the breasts, ask for advice on how to relieve the discomfort. Hot compresses may help; medication to dry up the milk supply is usually unnecessary.
If your baby cant nurse at first, but you wish to keep the milk supply going until he can, you can express breast milk by hand or with a breast pump. This method is also used to store breast milk for bottle feeding if you cant be continually available to nurse. Expressed breast milk should be stored in the refigerator in a bottle that has been sterilized or at least scrubbed with soap and hot water. Any milk that is not used within 24 hours should be frozen.
Its also possible to use a combination of breast and bottle. Unless you are actually weaning the baby away from the breast, however, switching back and forth may confuse your baby and make it harder for your breasts to produce enough milk for his needs.
While youre breast feeding, its advisable to keep caffeine and alcohol intake to a minimum or eliminate them altogether. In addition, many prescription and over-the-counter medications pass into breast milk. Ask your doctor before taking any medicine while nursing.
Further resources: The Complete Book of Breast-feeding. Marvin S. Eiger and Sally W. Olds. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1987.
The Womanly Art of Breast-feeding. La Leche League International. (Ask your obstetrician, maternity ward, or birthing center for a referral to your local chapter.) 4th edition. New York: New American Library, 1983.