The basics of breastfeeding

Breast-feeding is quite amazing. Under normal circumstances, the mother's body is able to produce all the food her newborn needs. How does it work?

Early in your pregnancy, your milk-producing (mammary) glands prepare for nursing. By about your sixth month of pregnancy, your breasts are ready to produce milk. In some women, tiny droplets of yellowish fluid appear on the nipples at this time. This fluid is called colostrum. It's the protein-rich fluid that a breast-fed baby gets the first few days after birth. Colostrum is very good for the baby because it contains infection-fighting antibodies from your body. It doesn't yet contain milk sugar (lactose). It's actually the delivery of the placenta that signals your body to start milk production. It clears the way for a hormone called prolactin to start up the mammary glands.

Your milk supply gradually increases, or is said to come in, between the third and fifth days after delivery. What you experience is full and sometimes tender breasts. They may feel lumpy or hard as the glands fill with milk. When a baby nurses, breast milk is released from tiny sacs of the milk-producing glands. The milk travels down milk ducts, which are located just behind the dark circle of tissue that surrounds the nipple (areola). The sucking action of the baby compresses the areola, forcing milk out through tiny openings in the nipple.

Your baby's sucking stimulates nerve endings in your areola and nipple, sending a message to your brain to tell your body to release the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin acts on the milk-producing glands in your breast, causing the release of milk to your nursing baby. This release is called the letdown (milk ejection) reflex, which may be accompanied by a tingling sensation. Soon you learn to use the let-down reflex as a cue to sit back, relax and enjoy precious moments feeding your baby.

The stimulation of frequent nursing builds up your milk supply. The letdown reflex makes your milk available to your baby. Although your baby's sucking is the main stimulus for milk let-down, other stimuli may have the same effect. For example, your baby's cry — or even thoughts of your baby or the sounds of rippling water — may set things in motion.

Your body produces milk after you have a baby, regardless of whether you plan on breast-feeding. If you don't breast-feed, your milk supply even tually dries up. If you do breast-feed, your body's milk production is based on supply and demand. The more frequently your baby nurses, the more milk your breasts produce.

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My First Baby

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