A doctor sets the record straight.
There is so much conflicting information circulating on the Internet about breastfeeding. Both new and experienced mothers must often wonder what is true and what is just myth. Let’s demystify the topic.
1. Breastfeeding hurts — both myth and fact
It’s true that the first week of nursing can be painful, especially for new moms who don’t know how to help the baby latch on properly. Engorgement, when the breasts fill up with milk after the first three days, can also be uncomfortable.
But the good news is that it will all pass. If you survive the first few days, it will get better. That is why it is worth it to ask an experienced midwife or lactation consultant for help at the start. You might be able to learn newborn care on the job, but nursing without help can be challenging at first.
2. Nursing will make your breasts unsightly — a myth
Research on this topic has shown that breastfeeding does not degrade the state of your breasts, but it does protect from ovary and endometrial cancers. What really affects breast shape and size are pregnancy, age, and body mass index. Smoking cigarettes also affects the breasts. Nursing, not so much.
3. Breastfeeding requires a rigorous diet — a myth
Unless you live on Twinkies and Coca-Cola, you don’t have to change your eating habits radically after giving birth. Regardless of whether you have a child or not, it is important to eat good quality, nutritious food both during pregnancy and after the birth.
You may want to avoid extremely spicy food for the first three months when the baby’s digestive system is still immature, but otherwise you can eat everything you normally eat. No rigorous diets required.
4. Breastfeeding will help you shed the excess pregnancy pounds — myth and fact
This is true, because nursing actually does increase your daily caloric expenditure by about 550 calories (roughly the equivalent of two Snickers bars or one whole chocolate bar). So nursing helps you burn calories, but whether you return to your pre-pregnancy weight will depend mostly on how much you had gained and how much you eat and get back into exercise. It’s not magic.
If your supply exceeds the demand, unfortunately, your weight will not decrease. You’ll have a big appetite while you’re nursing, and trying to curb it might not be healthy for you or the baby. And remember that even if the scale shows you the right number, your body will still look different due to the stretched muscles. So if you want to get rid of some of that baby weight stat, add some exercise. But first, take a step back and consider that your body has just cooperated in the creation of a whole new human being. Does it really matter if you never look the same in a swimsuit again?
5. Breastfeeding is more convenient than the bottle — myth and fact
It depends on what we mean by convenience. Nursing allows you to go anywhere without worrying about bags with bottles, nipples, and a thermos of sterilized water. On the other hand, a bottle can be used by dad, grandma, or a babysitter, which allows mom to leave for longer than an hour (providing she isn’t a nervous wreck worrying about the baby the whole time).
If exclusively breastfeeding, you can feed the baby quickly at night, almost without fully waking up, but no one can take your place and let you sleep (unless you’ve pumped beforehand to give dad a chance for night duty. That may or may not feel worth it.)
6. WHO recommends breastfeeding until six months of age — myth
You can breastfeed for as long as you want. The WHO recommends breastfeeding as the sole method of feeding a child up to six months. After that, it suggests gradually expanding the diet to solid foods, not a sudden overnight transition from milk to solid foods. There is no need to stop breastfeeding after you begin introducing solid foods.
7. After six months the milk is not valuable, it’s only water — myth
Human milk consists of three fractions which can be compared to a full dinner. During nursing, the first three milliliters make up a “soup,” which can really give an impression of white water and not milk. But immediately after, a more substantial second course appears, and then the baby proceeds to a fatty dessert. Milk changes even during the singular act of nursing. Its content also changes depending on the time of day and the season in which we nurse, as well as the age of the child. It adapts to his needs, and this ability does not magically disappear after the baby reaches six months of age.
8. Small breasts = little food — myth
The amount of milk does not depend on the size of the breasts pre-pregnancy, but on how often the child nurses and what are his needs. What’s more, you can feed the baby adequately by nursing from only one breast. Checking how much you produce by using a breast pump and figuring out exactly how many milliliters you produce can only lead to frustration. The pump will always extract less than a child. It’s the baby that stimulates the hormones and allows the production and delivery of the milk.
9. You cannot get pregnant while breastfeeding — myth
Yes, you can. Breastfeeding is not a method of avoiding conception. Yes, oxytocin and progesterone inhibit ovulation, but not always and not for long. We can talk about the lack of ovulation during the first six weeks after birth but after that breastfeeding will affect different women differently.
10. To jumpstart lactation you need to drink beer, tea with milk, cow’s milk, herbal tea, etc. — myth
There is no scientific evidence for that advice. We have very little data on the efficacy and safety of most herbal products for jumpstarting lactation. The best, simplest, least expensive and most effective possible method is simply eating nutritious food and having frequent nursing sessions.
Many of the breastfeeding myths have a grain of truth covered by a shell of falsehood. For a new mom, it can be difficult to discern which is which, so once again, I strongly urge you to seek help from qualified lactation experts.
If you would like to read more about breastfeeding or get connected with a lactation consultant near you, La Leche League is an excellent resource.
This article was originally published in the Polish Edition of Aleteia.