Providing human milk can be one of the most rewarding aspects of early parenting, but it can also be challenging without the right knowledge and support. As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, it is important to debunk some common myths about human milk feeding that can make things harder for new parents.
Myth #1: Nursing hurts.
Breast/chestfeeding should not be painful. A little tenderness in the beginning is normal, but this is typically gone within the first 1-2 weeks of life.
Contact a lactation consultant for help if:
You still have discomfort after the first few weeks
The discomfort lasts more than 30 seconds after starting a feed or pumping session
You have pain in between feedings
You have cracked, damaged, or bleeding nipples
Myth #2: Human milk feeding is only beneficial for the first few months of a baby’s life.
The WHO (World Health Organization) recommends that babies receive human milk for at least 2 years and beyond as desired by the feeding parent and infant; the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommends that babies receive human milk for at least 1 year. Health benefits for both parent and baby increase the longer the baby is fed the parent’s milk.
There are many benefits of feeding human milk, which include:
Parents providing milk have less risk of high blood pressure, ovarian and breast cancer, as well as type 2 diabetes, with a greater reduction in risk the longer a parent provides.
Infants have lower rates of obesity and SIDS.
Myth #3: Parents should not breast/chestfeed when they are sick with flu or COVID-19, or if they get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Even when a parent is sick, it is still recommended that they continue to provide milk for their baby. Antibodies in the milk will help to protect the baby from illness. Formula does not have these important antibodies.
There is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine enters milk. It is safe to continue providing milk after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The antibodies your body makes after getting the vaccine do enter milk and may help to protect your baby. Getting the COVID-19 vaccine also makes it less likely that you will get COVID-19, and if you do, it’s less likely that you will become severely ill and unable to care for your baby.
Take these steps to protect your baby while providing milk when you are sick:
Wash hands before and after holding your baby.
Wear a face mask while feeding your baby.
If possible, have a healthy caregiver help with other care of the baby so that you can rest.
If unable to directly nurse your baby, pump to protect your milk supply and feed your pumped milk as the next best alternative.
Myth #4: Parents cannot breast/chestfeed if they are smoking or taking medications.
The vast majority of medications, including medications to treat anxiety and depression, are safe with human milk feeding. The risks of formula feeding outweigh the risk of smoking while breast/chestfeeding. Breast/chestfeeding helps protect babies against SIDS and lung infections, which are more common in babies when parents smoke.
Here are a few important facts to know about medications and human milk feeding:
Your doctor and your baby’s doctor can look up your medications to see if they are safe.
If a medication is not safe, an alternative medication is usually available.
Myth #5: Formula supplementation is needed to make sure that the baby is “getting enough.”
When babies are supplemented with formula early on, they are more likely to stop breast/chestfeeding sooner than babies who don’t receive formula. Exclusive breast/chestfeeding is recommended by the WHO and AAP for the first six months of an infant’s life. In the early weeks, it is common for babies to feed very frequently. This does not mean that there is not enough milk.
Here are a few signs to watch out for to ensure that baby is getting enough milk:
You can hear baby swallowing milk during feeds
Baby appears relaxed, with open hands after finishing a feed
Baby has plenty of wet and dirty diapers
Baby is gaining weight
If you are concerned about whether baby is getting enough milk, the best way to know is to weigh the baby at the doctor’s office. You can schedule a weight check with your pediatrician at any time. You can also discuss your concerns with a lactation consultant.
Myth #6: I need to take special supplements, teas, or cookies to make enough milk for my baby.
There is no evidence that supplements, teas, or cookies are needed to make enough milk for your baby. The size of a parent’s breasts doesn’t determine how much milk they will make. Fatigue and exercise do not affect supply, but stress can affect how milk comes out.
Here are a few tips to maintain a full milk supply:
Eat when hungry and do not restrict calories.
Drink until no longer thirsty.
Feed your baby frequently; it’s typically necessary to nurse your baby or pump 8-12 times per day to maintain a full milk supply, especially in the first 6-8 weeks.
If you are feeling stressed, take a few minutes before nursing or pumping to take a few slow deep breaths or try a brief meditation exercise.
If you are concerned about your milk supply, seek help by calling your OB, your baby’s pediatrician or a lactation consultant.
Sara Schroder, MD, is a staff physician in the Section of Primary Care Pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a clinical assistant professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. She provides direct patient care at the Nationwide Children's Hospital Olentangy and Linden Primary Care Centers and covers at all of the other Primary Care Centers. Dr. Schroder’s clinical interests include preventive care, breastfeeding and teaching medial students and residents.
Vanessa Shanks, MD, FAAP
Clinical Nutrition and Lactation
Vanessa Shanks, MD is a neonatologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University. She is also assistant professor of pediatrics for The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
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