Boobs are Awesome

Folks, the human body is amazing, and the process of preparing mother and baby for feeding is no exception. Here’s 10 stunning facts about breastfeeding that I learned this week in our Lamaze class.

1. During pregnancy, the nipple and surrounding tissue darkens to allow the infant (who has poor vision at birth) to see her “target” clearly.

2. The oxytocin released during labor and delivery causes contractions not only in the uterus but also the muscle cells around the milk-filled alveoli, which subsequently release milk to baby.

3. The baby is typically most alert in her first hour of life. She arrives “on empty” and is ready to eat. Just like other mammals, human infants can find their mother’s breast all on their own. Newborns have stepping and crawling reflexes that allow them to shimmy down mom’s chest and latch on all on their own. In the process of creeping down, they push on mom’s uterus and help with the process of uterine involution. Here is a beautiful (albeit a bit slow) video of a newborn crawl. (NB: YouTube thinks the video may be inappropriate for children, so you must sign in to view it.)

4. Frequent feedings in the first 72 hours of baby’s life signal the brain to release prolactin, which causes more alveoli to grow, ensuring adequate long term milk supply. The first 72 hours are critical for establishing supply for the baby’s first year.

5.  The breast produces different types of milk that match baby’s nutritive needs and stomach size. For example, on the first day of life the baby’s stomach is no larger than a marble, and can only hold a teaspoon of milk at a time. On the first day, the breast produces colostrum, which is thick and sweet and the baby doesn’t need much of it to keep her blood sugar level stable. As the baby grows, her mom’s breasts produce a higher volume of milk with different nutrients that match baby’s stomach capacity and nutritional needs.

6. In the first few weeks, baby should be fed on demand. She’ll lick or smack her lips and use her rooting reflex to let you know she’s hungry. If she doesn’t make these signs, she should be offered the breast every few hours. Infants may nurse for 10-40 minutes, 8-12 times per day. I’ll spare you the math and tell you that means that in a 24 hour period of time, mom will nurse a minimum of an hour and a half to a maximum of eight hours. That’s a huge job!

7. Breastfeeding is not supposed to hurt. I know so many moms who found breastfeeding terribly painful, and I just assumed pain was part of the process. So it was really helpful to hear that pain may signal a poor latch or some other issue that could be addressed, rather than endured.

8. It’s important to break suction before removing baby from the breast. This makes perfect sense, but I’d never heard it before. When mom takes baby off her breast she can put a clean finger in the baby’s mouth to break suction, thereby preventing painful, sore nipples.

9. Draining one breast at a time helps baby get the most nutrients from the breast milk.  During the first part of the feeding the baby receives foremilk, which has more water content and quenches her thirst. Then the baby gets hindmilk, which has higher fat content and promotes brain development and weight gain.

10. Breastfeeding is hard work and partners can play a big role by encouraging mom, keeping her hydrated and nourished, watching for baby’s hunger cues, and observing baby’s latch (since mom can’t see it very well).

I’m so glad we have access to help and encouragement for breastfeeding. Our hospital has lactation nurses, a 24 help line, and a twice weekly breastfeeding support group. I don’t think our moms and grandmothers had the same support, and we are lucky that times have changed. As further evidence of that shift, there were five fathers in our breastfeeding class!