Celebrate National Breastfeeding Month and Black Breastfeeding Week with answers to breastfeeding basics

Breastfeeding is a naturally healthy option for providing nourishment to your baby. Among breastfeeding’s many benefits, breast milk contains optimal nutrition and gives an immune system boost to your baby. It also lowers long-term disease risk for both you and your child. Because of those and many other reasons, we encourage all new moms to breastfeed, if possible.

While moms around the world have breastfed for centuries, there are a lot of questions around breastfeeding and it can be challenging, especially for first-time mothers. At the University of Chicago Medicine, we offer classes and lactation support before and after your baby’s birth to make the process easier.

Each August, National Breastfeeding Month is celebrated nationally to raise awareness about the rewards and challenges of breastfeeding. In the Black community, there’s lower breastfeeding rates compared to other communities, and Black Breastfeeding Week is celebrated August 25-31 to raise awareness among Black women about the benefits of breastfeeding.

To mark National Breastfeeding Month and Black Breastfeeding Week, UChicago Medicine obstetrician and gynecologist Perpetua Goodall, MD, and UChicago Medicine Medical Group pediatrician Angela Holliday-Bell*, MD, address all the questions you might have about breastfeeding.

Do you encourage all new moms to breastfeed?

Yes, we encourage all moms to consider breastfeeding. When our patients come in for prenatal care, we’ll bring up the issue of feeding and we encourage breastfeeding as the primary form of feeding. Of course there are situations where it may not be advisable or feasible. We come up with a plan that works best for the family or situation.

What are the benefits of breastfeeding and breast milk vs. formula?

For the baby, breast milk transfers important antibodies from the mom that help the baby’s immune system to build up from birth; breast-fed babies tend to have fewer childhood illnesses and infections, including a decrease in obesity, diabetes and asthma. Breast milk has the natural complement of vitamins and nutrients that a baby needs to thrive.

And what are the benefits of breastfeeding for a mom?

Breastfeeding allows the uterus to go back to normal size quicker and with less blood loss after delivery. Some women lose a lot more of the weight they gained during pregnancy if they breast feed. The long-term health benefits for a mom also include a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers. We also think it helps with emotional well-being for both a mom and baby. The skin-to-skin contact really helps with bonding and there are natural endorphins that get released during breast feeding.

Why do Black moms breastfeed less?

There are disparities in rates of breastfeeding for Black mothers compared to white and Hispanic moms. For some, there are cultural barriers in terms of the connection to enslaved women having to be wetnurses and breastfeeding other people’s babies. That stigma may lead to negative feelings about breastfeeding.

There are other societal, structural and economic reasons as well. Formula is more highly marketed and promoted for lower-income and African American patients. The tradition of using formula gets passed down and you have generations of women who didn’t breastfeed and who may not encourage breastfeeding in the next generation. We are certainly seeing a shift, but some of these attitudes are longstanding and historical so the work is being put in to reverse them.

What breastfeeding support does UChicago Medicine provide to new moms?

We provide prenatal classes specifically for breastfeeding and we have support in place in the hospital around the time of delivery. During the postpartum period, we have a lactation support group that meets weekly. Individual support is provided as needed in person at the hospital or via telephone.

All of our nurses are trained in lactation education so they can help new moms with initial latching, breastfeeding positions, and answer questions about preparing for breast pumping and storing breast milk. They’ll also discuss breastfeeding cues and how to know when your baby’s ready to eat.

Our lactation consultants do an assessment on each mom to see what support they need. They try to observe a feeding and offer real-time tips around latching, positioning and breastfeeding cues.

How often should I breastfeed my baby?

In the first few days to weeks, we recommend feeding on demand — it averages out to around every two to three hours. The baby can only hold so much because the stomach at this age is very small. As a baby grows they can go longer between feeds, usually up to four to five hours.

How long should I breastfeed my baby?

We recommend at least six months of breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two years or more, but also acknowledges the obstacles that stand in parents’ way. You should breastfeed exclusively through six months, then after that the baby will take in other sources of food, but the vast majority of nutrients will come from milk.

What’s your diet advice for breastfeeding moms?

Drink plenty of fluids — it takes plenty of fluid to make breastmilk. We encourage moms to take a prenatal or multivitamin and to eat a balanced diet.

There may be certain foods that don’t sit well with your baby and may make them more fussy. This is often a matter of trial and error.

Are there some moms who shouldn’t breastfeed?

There are very few situations where breastfeeding would not be advised.

In the U.S., if a mom has HIV infection, we would advise against breastfeeding in order to reduce the risk of transmission. Also, some babies have enzyme deficiencies that would prevent the use of breastmilk.

Is breastfeeding challenging?

It can be. It’s a natural process, but it doesn’t come that easily for most people, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most people need some support from family members or a lactation consultant. It takes time for a mom and baby to get used to it. With time and experience things do get better — second and third time moms usually find it to be a much easier experience. Being a first-time mom does come with some anxiety. We find that people who take breastfeeding classes beforehand go in with a little more confidence.

What if I don’t produce enough milk for my baby?

Sometimes the milk supply isn’t enough to meet the demands of your baby and you may need to supplement with formula. We encourage moms to do extra pumping sessions to stimulate a greater demand and signal to the brain that more milk needs to be produced. There are also certain medications or herbal supplements that can be used to stimulate production.

Will my baby still be healthy if I can’t breastfeed?

Absolutely! There are some parents who may feel guilt or shame for not being able to breastfeed. Ideally, breastfeeding is what we encourage. But we want your baby to be fed, so there’s nothing wrong with giving your baby formula if you have to.

Don’t feel pressured or coerced into a feeding choice that may not be right for you. You aren’t a failure if you don’t. Sometimes it’s painful; some moms have to go back to work right away and they can’t breastfeed exclusively or at all. You have to work with the circumstances within your life. We support people the best way possible to get them to breastfeed if they want to.

*Angela Holliday-Bell, MD, is a UChicago Medicine Medical Group provider. UChicago Medicine Medical Group is comprised of UCM Care Network Medical Group, Inc. and Primary Healthcare Associates, S.C. UChicago Medicine Medical Group providers are not employees or agents of The University of Chicago Medical Center, The University of Chicago, or UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial.

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