Breastfeeding Basics: What to Expect in Your First Week of Breastfeeding

When your baby is born, both of your lives change dramatically.

He must learn quickly how to breathe, control his own temperature, and eat. At the same time, you must recover from your birth and care for your new baby. If you choose to breastfeed, this is a learning process for both of you. All these transitions make the first week of breastfeeding especially hard.

To make this first week easier, we recommend doing a little research on breastfeeding before birth.

Attend a class, read a book, and network with friends, family, and support groups who are supportive of breastfeeding. Even with all that, it’s hard to know what to expect and easy to lose confidence during that first week.

To help with this, I’ve made you a “cheat sheet” with FAQ about breastfeeding, with an emphasis on the first week after childbirth. This information is primarily based on “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”, the La Leche League breastfeeding handbook. This is a great resource for a nursing family!

How do I know if my baby is hungry?

You will know if your baby is hungry or full based on his behavior. A hungry newborn may “root around” when you touch his cheek. Essentially, he is searching for your breast. He may smack his lips or put his hands in his mouth. He may even bob his head against your chest (this looks similar to a chicken “pecking” at your chest). He may squirm around a lot. If you miss these subtle cues, he may get fussy, cry, and make tight fists.

How do I know if my baby is full?

Full babies have a few key behaviors. A full baby is content, not crying, and his hands are usually relaxed (not in fists). He may get drowsy or even fall asleep. Sleepiness is a great indicator later, but can mislead you a bit during the first week, so we would check for other signs first during this time. If in doubt, you can always offer your breast again and nurse longer.

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How long should I nurse my baby each feeding?

On average, you will likely nurse about 20-45 minutes about every 2-3 hours. But, you can really nurse as long as you and your baby want! An alert baby may choose to nurse for an hour or more. You definitely want to feed your baby until he is full, but you can always nurse longer if you’re both happy and comfortable.

How frequently should I feed my baby?

On average, you want to breastfeed every 2-3 hours, including overnight. Sometimes, medications from your birth, prematurity, or jaundice can make newborns extra sleepy. During the first week home, he may be tempted to sleep through feedings or fall asleep quickly after starting one.

During the first week, you really want to get at least 8 good, nursing sessions a day. If it has been 3 hours since you last nursed, it’s time to wake that sweet baby!

If your baby was full term and is otherwise healthy, he should be giving clear hunger signals by the end of the first week and you can likely switch to feeding him “on-cue” (meaning, you stop watching the clock and feed him when he gives feeding cues). Some pediatricians will suggest you wait to switch to on-cue feeding until after your baby regains his birth weight (usually by 10-14 days). Check with your pediatrician if you have any questions on this!

How do I wake him to nurse?

First, dim the room. If the room is very bright, he will squint, which makes it much harder to keep his eyes open. Undress your baby to just his diaper. This may do the trick all by itself. If not, place him skin-to-skin on your chest and stroke him. Try speaking his name and rubbing his feet. You can also place him undressed in a crib. Without your warm, comforting body next to him, he may wake up quickly. If all else fails, you can rub him gently with a damp washcloth until he wakes up or hand-express a small amount of colostrum or breastmilk into his mouth to get him interested.

How will I know if my baby is getting enough?

In my opinion, this question causes the most anxiety for new parents! Here are a few signs of a thriving baby (one who is getting enough breastmilk):

  • Begins gaining weight after your milk comes in
  • Passes birth weight by at least 10-14 days
  • Is gaining weight appropriately (around 1 oz or 30g per day). Keep in mind, this is an average, so your baby may gain more or less weight. Your doctor/midwife will keep track of your baby’s weight at all visits.
  • Has at least 3 yellow poops (around the size of an “okay” sign with your thumb and forefinger) and five colorless, odorless, heavy wet diapers a day
  • Doesn’t have difficulty latching on or staying latched
  • Generally has his eyes open and looks interested for the first part of a nursing session
  • Has slow, steady sucks for some part of every nursing session, usually soon after feeding starts
  • Is content for a few minutes after each feeding
  • Can almost always be consoled by nursing again
  • Sometimes has calm, alert time between feedings
  • Is visibly “filling out”, with plumped thighs, fuller cheeks, and deepening creases on his wrists. His skin looks smooth, not baggy or loose.
  • Is growing in length and head circumference

If concerned, you can always talk to your doctor, midwife, a La Leche League Leader, WIC breastfeeding peer counselor, or lactation consultant! Contact us for recommendations if you don't know know where to start.

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Why does my baby sometimes want to nurse again very quickly? Does this mean I’m not making enough milk?

This can occur at any point but is most unnerving for new parents.

Frequent nursing doesn’t mean you’re not making enough!

Soon after birth, babies do this to help you milk “come in” by reminding your body that you now have a baby who needs milk. Later, he might do this because he is going through a growth spurt.

Milk production works by supply and demand – your body will make more milk the more he nurses! Keep in mind, as long as he is sucking (even if it is only for comfort), he is helping your milk come in and increasing your supply. On the flipside, if you add bottles of formula to supplement, your breasts won’t get the stimulation they need and may actually produce less overall.

How will I know when my baby is eating versus when he is nursing for comfort?

Your baby doesn’t just nurse for food, he also nurses for comfort. Imagine it – you’re held close by your favorite person, who is often gently stroking or cooing at you, and you’re getting a delicious meal! With this in mind, it’s not surprising babies want to nurse all the time! Anyway, we digress.

When your baby is truly eating, you will notice he takes deeper, stronger sucks and is swallowing. Good swallowing of ample milk makes a whispering sound, like “keh...keh...keh”. Here’s a video on infant swallowing. He should do this for some portion of every feeding, usually soon after you begin nursing.

Which side should I nurse?

Ideally, you want about the same amount of time on both sides. But don’t let this stress you out. Nurse one side until it is no longer comfortable, then switch sides. Or don’t worry about nursing both sides this feeding and start with the other side on the next feeding. As a reminder of which side they nursed last, many parents will put a hair band on their wrist and switch it from the left to right arm each time they switch sides. Don’t judge them – it gets really hard to keep track when you’re sleep-deprived and nursing 8-12 times per day! My biggest advice is just to relax about this – you will likely alternate sides pretty naturally. Some babies want to nurse both sides every feeding and others prefer to only nurse one side. You and your baby will figure out what works for you.

Breastfeeding is beautiful and natural, but it can also be hard! Our last piece of advice is two-fold.

First, surround yourself with people who are supportive and preferably have nursed their own babies.

This can be friends or family members, but it doesn’t have to be, especially if you are the first of your family or friends to breastfeed. Find extra support with postpartum doulas, medical providers, lactation counselors, and breastfeeding support groups. The Knoxville La Leche League has meetings throughout the month and welcomes pregnant parents. Many other local groups, such as new mother support groups and babywearing groups are also full of people who can help you with nursing. If you get frustrated, talk to people in your support system, because I cannot emphasize enough how much easier breastfeeding is when you feel supported!!

Second, be confident in your body and it’s amazing abilities.

It is so easy to feel unsure of yourself, especially in the beginning. Trust your instincts; they are there for a reason. Your baby’s instincts tell him to cry when he needs something and to suck on anything placed near his mouth. Your instincts tell you pick him up and hold him on your chest, near your breast. No one taught you both how to do that – you just did it. Trust yourself and know that you are enough!

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