The first few days after childbirth can be a whirlwind for new moms. Upon returning home, they are faced with finding eating and sleeping schedules that work for the baby and the rest of the family, all while juggling requests from friends and family eager to meet the new addition. On top of that, some new mothers who are breast-feeding are left wondering: Am I doing this correctly?
"Breast-feeding is not necessarily something that comes naturally to women, even though their bodies are designed to do it," says Courtney Landry, head of the La Leche League of New Orleans. "It's a learning process."
With advice and guidance from lactation consultants, nurses and support groups, new and soon-to-be mothers can learn about the mutual health benefits of breast-feeding.
Founded in the 1950s as a support group for breast-feeding mothers, the nonprofit organization has become an international authority on the subject. The New Orleans chapter meets twice a month to provide education for pregnant women and new moms looking for information about breast-feeding.
"Breast milk is the natural food for a baby," Landry says. "From the time your baby is born, what your body is producing is exactly what they need, which is actually really cool."
As a family nurse practitioner and a lactation counselor at Birthmark Doulas, Nikki Greenaway says there are several physical benefits to breast-feeding, one of which is decreasing the baby's risk infections and diseases.
"Babies don't have the antibiotics to fight off infections, because immunizations are not done until one or two months after they're born," Greenaway says. "Moms are able to give their babies antibodies through their milk to help them fight off these potential infections."
Along with the decreased risk of infections come fewer reported allergies and shorter hospital stays compared to infants who aren't breast-fed, according to Susie Amick, a lactation consultant at East Jefferson General Hospital.
There are benefits for the mother as well.
"There are reports showing that women who breast-feed have fewer breast cancers," Amick says. "They are also usually able to lose their pregnancy weight faster than mothers who aren't breast-feeding."
Greenaway recommends breast-feeding as a great way to manage weight for both mothers and their babies while also minimizing the chances of children growing up with Type 1 or 2 diabetes.
"Babies that are breast-fed tend not to overeat," Greenaway says. "They eat what they want, and then they're off, whereas babies that are bottle-fed tend to drink all that's in the bottle, because it's steadily going down their throats."
However, some women — including women who are HIV-positive or who have other health problems — are advised not to breast-feed. For other women, the fear that breast-feeding is painful deters them from trying it.
"One of the common misconceptions about breast-feeding is if there's pain, you're not doing it right," Greenaway says. "At the beginning, there is going to be a little pain. Nipples are extremely sensitive, and when a child is latched on, it can be uncomfortable at first."
When this happens, she urges mothers to keep trying. The pain will go away once the nipples have "toughened up," Greenaway says.
Greenaway, Amick and Landry agree that ultimately it is the mother's decision whether she'll breast-feed. At East Jefferson General Hospital, Amick helps mothers make informed decisions about it.
"Louisiana is known throughout the country for having one of the lowest breast-feeding rates, and unfortunately, one of the highest infant mortality rates," Amick says. "Since those are connected, we encourage mothers to educate themselves before making the decision."
Mothers should decide what they are comfortable with while determining how long to breast-feed their children.
"It's recommended that mothers breast-feed exclusively for the first six months and continue breast-feeding for a minimum of one to two years," Amick says.
According to Landry, the length of time a baby is breast-fed depends solely on the mother and her baby. But when stories of mothers who breast-feed until their children are in grade school pop up on newsstands across the country, it's easy to see how new mothers become confused.
"I can see how breast-feeding can become a little awkward for the child as they get older," Greenaway says. "However, I encourage mothers to do whatever they and their child are comfortable with throughout the breast-feeding process."