You don’t have to navigate your breastfeeding journey alone. Here, a lactation consultant offers advice and sources of support for new parents.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated from an earlier version posted in August 2021.
Breastfeeding is a great way for birthing parents to give their infants the nutrients they need, while also taking care of their own health. Not only can it protect babies against illness, but it can also reduce the birth parent’s risk for certain cancers, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Despite the many known benefits of breastfeeding, it can also be a confusing experience for a first-time parent.
To clarify some frequently asked questions about breastfeeding, we spoke with clinical lactation consultant Susan Fuchs, MS, IBCLC.
Are there any dietary recommendations for those who are breastfeeding?
There’s no specialized breastfeeding diet for lactating parents. I recommend staying hydrated and eating a healthy, balanced diet. Additionally, eating a variety of foods and flavors can help your baby be more willing to try different foods later in life. It’s also best to stick to low amounts of caffeine while breastfeeding, as it can be present in your breastmilk. One or two cups of coffee is a safe amount.
In terms of drinking alcohol and breastfeeding, I recommend no more than one drink (generally 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits) two hours before breastfeeding. This will give your body time to metabolize the alcohol and make sure it is out of your system before your infant latches on.
Is it safe to lose weight while breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding burns around 500 calories per day, so even those who aren’t trying to lose weight will likely do so. This is somewhat of a hidden benefit to breastfeeding, as it helps parents reach their goal weight after pregnancy about six months sooner than those who are not breastfeeding.
Many people want to lose their “baby weight” after giving birth, but you shouldn’t restrict your calories too much. You can safely exercise while breastfeeding, so you can be in a calorie deficit to work toward your goal weight. It’s important to continue to eat plenty of protein, fruits and vegetables and stay away from empty calories. In addition, one of the biggest causes of weight gain in new parents is lack of sleep, so be sure you’re getting a proper amount of rest.
Can you get a tattoo while breastfeeding?
Yes. Tattoos don’t affect your milk supply and ink does not enter your bloodstream. You should be sure that you are tattooed in a credentialed and safe location that uses new, clean needles. There is a high risk of blood borne infection if a tattoo parlor has unsanitary practices, but as long as you go to a reputable place, there should not be a problem.
Is it safe to vape while breastfeeding?
It depends on what is being vaped. If it’s a supplement like melatonin, it’s relatively safe. If it’s nicotine, it’s preferable to not use it while breastfeeding, but it’s all about weighing risks and benefits. It’s better to breastfeed with nicotine in your system than not breastfeed at all, and it’s better to vape nicotine than smoke cigarettes due to second- and third-hand smoke.
If you’re vaping marijuana, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends knowing the risks of using THC while breastfeeding. It’s best to only obtain it from a dispensary—street drugs of any kind are discouraged because we don’t know what is truly in them.
How can parents know if their baby is getting enough breastmilk?
Babies have a special way to let us know if they’re hungry. If their hands are super clenched, it’s often a sign of hunger. When they’re full they will become very relaxed. In the first few days after birth, infants are often sleepy and take colostrum (the first form of breastmilk after birth) in small amounts. I encourage patients to nurse their infants for at least 10 minutes during this early stage.
As milk transitions to mature milk, feeding time all depends on the parent and infant. Some lactating parents have a large milk storage and their infant can get what they need in five minutes. Others have less storage, so it may take 20 to 30 minutes for infants to feed. If you have questions about whether your baby is getting enough breastmilk, talk to a lactation specialist.
Does breastfeeding make you tired?
Cholecystokinin (CCK) is the hormone released in both the infant and the parent during breastfeeding. About five minutes into nursing, both the infant and the parent get a surge of this hormone, which makes them sleepy. There is a larger surge when the infant becomes full, which causes the “milk drunk” phenomenon that many parents see. For the parent, the release of CCK and other breastfeeding hormones, such as oxytocin and prolactin, aids in relaxation and promotes sleepiness.
It’s important to make sure you’re in a safe breastfeeding position, so if you do fall asleep, your infant is safe. Laying down in bed to breastfeed may be better than on the couch or sitting up in a chair, especially if you’re already tired, so your baby has less of a chance of falling if you nod off.
Are the health benefits different between pumping and breastfeeding?
Feeding your infant breastmilk is a success story no matter how it happens, but there are two big health differences between pumping and breastfeeding. First, if a baby is drinking out of a bottle instead of the breast, there is a higher chance of obesity later in life. Parents tend to make their baby finish a bottle, whereas when they’re nursing from the breast the infant will stop when they are full. To help with this, parents can practice paced bottle-feeding, which is a method that lets the infant decide when they are full enough to stop feeding.
The other benefit of breastfeeding over pumping is that infants have a better chance of fighting off illness when breastfed. The parent’s body will know when the baby is sick, and the next time they feed, there will be antibodies present in the breastmilk to help them fight off any illness. This happens even if the parent is not sick.
What happens if you get pregnant while breastfeeding?
Often, when you get pregnant while still breastfeeding, your milk supply will be reduced. Your milk will also change in taste—early milk is higher in salt and less sweet than what your infant is probably used to. Many babies will self-wean during this time, but may start co-feeding again with the new baby after birth. Typically, there’s a natural spacing in between pregnancies, which means your baby is likely eating other foods. This means they can still get nutrients from other sources, and self-weaning isn’t a concern.
When can you stop breastfeeding your baby?
Parents wean for many different reasons. The AAP has recently updated its recommendations to suggest breastfeeding for at least two years, if possible. Some people can’t breastfeed for this long, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s important, if you need to wean your baby, to do it slowly. Offer your breast one less time per day until your baby and your body adjusts.
Some parents allow their babies to lead the weaning process. When they choose to wean, they will gradually ask to latch less and less—during the toddler years it may only be in the morning and at night before bed. Baby-led weaning could last several years.
Where can parents go if they need help with breastfeeding?
You shouldn’t hesitate to reach out if you ever have any questions or concerns about breastfeeding. Ask your OBGYN or midwife about seeing a lactation specialist (IBCLC), or other education and breastfeeding support services offered, which should be covered under insurance. Success means something different to everyone. Every parenting journey is different. But every parent deserves to know they’re doing a great job.
[Main photo credit: iStock.com/miodrag ignjatovic]