The day your baby is born is one of the most important days on the journey to successful breastfeeding. Lactation counselors like myself have observed many mothers in the first hour after birth who already feel the pressure to get breastfeeding right! Part of the key is removing that pressure, and replacing it with support and more up-to-date information.
Parents often hear the current wisdom about “bonding,” which says the first feeding should happen within an hour. Ideally, a priority would be for mothers to relax and hold their newborns uninterrupted. Then, procedures like weighing the baby and putting ointment in the baby’s eyes would taken second place, and wait until at least an hour later.
On the other hand, your goal is not actually to have the baby suckling within minutes. Why? The Healthy Children Project explains that there are seven steps a newborn takes to achieve his very first feeding—and latching is not reached until step six. The five steps before that are: relaxation, awakening, mouth movements, crawling-type motions, and hand motions. (The seventh step is sleeping.)
An undisturbed period allows these steps to unfold, rather than separating mother and child, or presuming they should hurry up and latch. However, because hospital procedures are still evolving (away from the days when there was no guidance), staff members are often trained to teach breastfeeding in a way that may be too hands-on. According to best practices, a balance is needed instead.
Today, a nurse may hold the mother’s breast in one hand, hold the baby in the other hand, and bring them together into a latch, without having the family initiate this on their own. The nurse may surround the mother with pillows for support, or friends might gift her with a Boppy-type product. Interestingly though, no previous generation used these items.
A documentary was released in 2010 titled Babies: The Movie. The film follows families in four nations as they experience their child’s first year. Not only is it entertaining, but it offers an opportunity to visualize breastfeeding in other cultures—without products that could restrict mothers from using their instincts to hold and latch their babies properly.
Once a mother returns home, she will sit in a new posture on her sofa rather than a hospital bed, without someone doing the latching for her. Fathers and partners feel they should remember exactly how to arrange all those pillows. In a 48-hour hospital stay, there may be enough well-meaning interference that the family loses their confidence and natural reflexes to latch by themselves.
Guidance is needed, yes. The direction of lactation counseling is gradually moving toward sitting patiently with the mother and baby, giving them as much time as they need to complete the “seven steps,” and remaining hands-off while teaching parents to discover their baby’s signals and positions that work—which can be different for each family.
Mothers may need to say, “Please help me learn to breastfeed by having me position the baby myself, rather than someone else doing this.” If these techniques are not learned on the baby’s first day of life, they can be re-learned with a lactation helper later. The effects of the first days last long afterward. I view breastfeeding like learning to dance. Natural rhythm must be respected, technique should be taught gently, and improvement comes with lots of practice. Under these conditions, nearly every mother can succeed.