What to Know About Lactation

Lactation is the process of milk being created in the mammary glands and then secreted. Lactation continues due to the regular removal of milk and stimulation of the nipples, and it allows for a parent to breastfeed their baby.

Benefits

Breastfeeding has numerous benefits for both parent and baby.

For Baby

For the baby, breast milk contains vital nutrients that allow a baby to grow into a healthy toddler. Breast milk may also help guard against illnesses and infections.

As babies grow, breast milk changes to meet their nutritional needs, and it is the only food or liquid a baby needs for about the first six months of life.

For most babies, breast milk can be easily digested and is beneficial for the gastrointestinal system. Studies have indicated that babies who were breastfed for the first six months of their lives experienced:

  • Fewer respiratory and ear infections
  • A lower likelihood of upset stomachs
  • Less occurrence of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Infants who are breastfed have lower risks of:

Breastfeeding can have long-term benefits for babies, as breast milk protects against increased blood pressure and diabetes later in life.

For Parent

For parents, breastfeeding decreases the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Parents who breastfeed also have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Breastfeeding can also help the healing process following childbirth.

Challenges

Breastfeeding can be difficult, particularly in the early days. Breastfeeding requires patience and practice. A lactation consultant or nurse can assist you with breastfeeding at the hospital before you go home.

Some women may encounter a number of challenges when breastfeeding, while others may have no problems.

Some challenges include:

Sore Nipples

Many parents note that their nipples feel tender or sore when they begin breastfeeding. Breastfeeding should be comfortable.

If you find breastfeeding uncomfortable, there are various things you can try, including:

  • Try different breastfeeding positions.
  • Ensure the baby has a good latch. Your baby shouldn't suckle only from the nipple but from the areola (the darker color around the nipple).
  • Don't delay feedings. Doing so can cause more pain and impact milk supply.
  • Keep cracked nipples moist with lanolin cream or ointment for breastfeeding.
  • Let nipples air-dry after feeding.

Low Milk Supply

Many parents worry their milk supply is running low or is not enough. Signs a baby is getting enough milk include:

  • Baby's interest in breastfeeding
  • Rhythmically sucking and swallowing milk
  • Breastfeeding on each breast at each feeding
  • Having regular dirty and wet diapers
  • Growing at a normal rate as judged by regular increases in weight, length, and head size

Between six weeks to two months, your breasts may not feel as full as they did. This is normal.

Growth spurts may make your baby feed more frequently. Don't worry about running out of milk. Breastfeeding more often increases the production of milk.

If you are worried about milk supply:

  • Ensure baby is latched well.
  • Breastfeed frequently (take baby's lead for how often).
  • Offer both breasts at each feeding.
  • In the first six months, avoid giving baby formula or cereal in addition to breast milk.

If the above doesn't help, speak with your healthcare provider.

Mastitis

Mastitis is a breast infection that can cause soreness or lumps in the breast. It typically occurs only in one breast.

Symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Yellow discharge from nipples
  • Hot or warm breasts that may appear red or pink

If you experience mastitis:

  • Massage the sore area, moving fingers in a circular motion toward the nipple.
  • Breastfeed on the infected breast at least every two hours to prevent the breast from becoming too full.
  • Apply heat using a wet cloth.
  • Wear a supportive bra that isn't too tight.
  • Get help from others and rest.

If symptoms don't improve within 24 hours, speak with your healthcare provider.

Seek Medical Attention

You should call your healthcare provider immediately if:

  • There is pus in breast milk.
  • There is blood in breast milk.
  • Both breasts look affected.
  • Symptoms are sudden and severe.
  • There are red streaks near the affected area of the breast.

Engorgement

When breastfeeding, it is normal for breasts to feel heavier and fuller. Engorgement occurs when breasts become hard and painful due to the buildup of milk. This can happen at any time but is most common three to five days after giving birth.

Symptoms include:

  • Warmth
  • Redness
  • Throbbing
  • Breast swelling
  • Breast tenderness
  • Flattening nipples
  • Low-grade fever

If you experience engorgement:

  • Breastfeed frequently after birth.
  • Work with a lactation consultant to help remove more milk from your breast.
  • Do not use pacifiers or bottles in the early weeks of breastfeeding.
  • Breastfeed on the engorged side frequently.
  • Hand express or pump a small amount of milk prior to breastfeeding.
  • Use a cold compress on the breast to ease pain.
  • Massage the breast.

Engorgement can lead to plugged ducts or breast infections if not dealt with promptly.

How Often Should I Breastfeed?

Babies should be breastfed on demand throughout the day and night. Signs a baby is hungry include:

  • Puts hands to mouth
  • Turns head toward mom's breast or bottle
  • Puckers, smacks, or licks lips
  • Has clenched hands

The average newborn feeds eight to 12 times a day. Some babies enjoy cluster feeding, which is when they want to nurse every hour for several feedings.

Babies should be allowed to breastfeed for as long as they are vigorously sucking on the first breast and seem satisfied. There doesn't need to be a limit on the length of feedings unless nipples are sore.

Some babies may not feed on both breasts at every feeding. This is fine, and babies can be offered the other breast at the next feed.

How Long Should I Breastfeed?

It is recommended that infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Following this, continued breastfeeding is recommended along with appropriate complementary foods up to the age of 2 years or longer.

Ideally, parents should breastfeed their babies for at least one year. The longer a baby is breastfed, the higher their protection against certain illnesses and diseases. Similarly, the longer a person breastfeeds, the greater the benefits for their health.

What If I Can't Breastfeed?

No matter the reason you are unable to breastfeed, remember that breastfeeding isn’t the only way to provide nutrition and build a close relationship with your child. Your baby can get the nutrition they need from donor breast milk, infant formula, or special infant formula.

A Word From Verywell

Lactation provides a great opportunity for parent and baby to bond, but it does come with some challenges. If you find yourself frustrated, try to reach out to a lactation consultant for some guidance and support.

If you find yourself unable to breastfeed, don't worry. There are formulas that can provide your baby with the essential nutrients they need to grow.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Lactation. Updated March 17, 2021.

  2. US Department of Health and Human Services. Breastfeed your baby. Updated October 15, 2021.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Breastfeeding.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastfeeding. Updated May 28, 2020.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Breastfeeding: the first weeks. Updated January 1, 2018.

  6. US Department of Health and Human Services. Common breastfeeding challenges. Updated August 17, 2018.

  7. Michigan Medicine. Signs that your baby is getting enough breast milk. Updated October 8, 2020.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Signs your child is hungry and full. Updated December 11, 2020.