The Medical Minute: A new or expectant mother’s guide to breastfeeding

A mother breast feeds her baby.

Breastfeeding provides many lifelong benefits for babies, including lowering risk for certain infections and diseases and helping build strong immune systems. It’s also good for mothers, explained Nancy McDaniel, a registered nurse and international board-certified lactation consultant at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital.

August 23, 2023Penn State Health News

Breastfeeding can decrease a mother’s risk for certain cancers ― including breast and ovarian, increase bone density, lower cholesterol and promote cardiovascular health, lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and help shed pregnancy weight. “There are a lot of reasons why Mom should breastfeed, and not just for the baby,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel offers a guide for how new moms can prepare for and reap the benefits of breast feeding.

How can an expectant or new mother prepare for breastfeeding?

Expectant moms who are wondering whether breastfeeding is right for them or have other questions can talk with a prenatal infant feeding and lactation specialist by phone, while new moms can address any issues they’re experiencing with a lactation specialist.

To contact a specialist or schedule an appointment at Penn State Health, call 717-531-MILK (6455) or click here. You also can ask your provider to schedule a lactation appointment or make one through the patient portal. Also, all Penn State Health Maternity Services nurses can assist new moms with breastfeeding before they leave the hospital and connect them to inpatient lactation consultants as needed.

What can a new mom expect in the early days of breastfeeding?

A pregnant woman begins producing milk at about 20 weeks, McDaniel said. The goal during the early days of breastfeeding is to increase milk production and get the baby accustomed to feeding.

“The baby doesn’t need to eat much at this point,” McDaniel said. “The real work is getting milk volumes to mature, which normally takes about 10 days following birth.”

As milk volumes increase, the mother’s breasts may become very firm and full. Baby’s stools will transition from the dark, thick meconium they pass shortly after birth to thin and mustard yellow colored.

Moms can expect breast feeding to get easier and proceed more quickly as her milk volumes increase and the baby gets used to latching onto the breast.

How often and for how long should babies be breastfed?

The stomach of a newborn baby is about the size of a cherry and can hold only about one teaspoon and up to half an ounce of milk at a time, meaning they need to eat often, McDaniel explained. Newborns should be fed when they are awake and at least every three hours for a minimum of eight feedings in a 24-hour period.

How long each feeding will take depends on various factors, such as the baby’s success at latching onto the breast and level of hunger. Ideally, a baby should have nothing but breast milk for the first six months, after which breastfeeding supplemented with table foods would continue for at least another six months.

How can you know if your baby is getting enough milk when breastfeeding?

The best way to judge is to keep an eye on the baby’s diaper, according to McDaniel. A newborn should produce between six and eight wet diapers a day, and up to six stools a day. If your baby’s diaper is often dry or without stools, you should consult a lactation consultant or your baby’s doctor. Also, babies provide cues when they’re hungry, such as smacking their lips and fussing, which can help you gauge whether they’re getting enough.

What foods and medications should a breastfeeding mom avoid?

The good news, according to McDaniel, is that no foods are off limits for breastfeeding moms, and those who enjoy alcoholic beverages can even have an occasional drink. Moms also can likely continue taking their medications, but should consult with a lactation specialist for guidance on which meds may be off limits.

“If Mom wants to eat spicy foods, go ahead and eat spicy foods,” McDaniel said. “And one adult beverage is okay, but not every day. Baby will let you know if you’re doing something they don’t like.”

Is it okay to pump milk and feed my baby with a bottle when it’s more convenient?

Pumping breast milk and using a bottle to feed a baby is fine, although direct breast feeding better stimulates milk production and is preferable early on. Also, skin-to-skin contact is beneficial for both the mother and child. And, said McDaniel, “a baby is just a lot cuter than a pump.”

What happens when a new mom goes back to work?

Federal law requires companies with 50 or more employees to allow hourly workers to pump milk as often as necessary, and to provide private space that is not a bathroom to do so. The law is less clear for salaried workers or employees of smaller companies, so moms should consult with human resources before giving birth to determine what policies are in place. A lactation consultant can provide copies of laws concerning the rights of breastfeeding women.

Related content:

  • The Medical Minute: Lactation consultants can help moms breastfeed successfully
  • The Medical Minute: Information, support can lead to breastfeeding success

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.