Maximise Your Chances of Succesful Breastfeeding

Cordelia Uys
Cordelia Uys

Cordelia Uys is an NCT breastfeeding counsellor who has been facilitating breastfeeding for 11 years. With a team of colleagues, she runs classes on introducing solids, parenting, and facilitating breastfeeding. Cordelia is Biamother’s breastfeeding expert

Over 80% of mothers in the UK want to breastfeed, the majority of women can produce all the milk their baby needs, and the walls of antenatal clinics are covered in posters extolling the health protection that breastfeeding confers to mothers and babies. Yet the UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. 

In this article, let’s look at what you can do to maximise your chances of successfully establishing breastfeeding. 

Steps to take before you give birth

Spend time with a friend who is having a positive experience of breastfeeding

Lots of people think because breastfeeding is natural, that it will come naturally to mothers, but in fact, for all female apes, breastfeeding is a learned behaviour. This can be seen from the experience of the juvenile female gorilla in Ohio zoo who, having been separated from her mother and their troop at a young age, had no idea how to feed her first baby. During her second pregnancy, zoo keepers had the inspired idea of asking some human mothers to come and regularly breastfeed their babies in front of her. When her second baby was born, she immediately put her baby to the breast. 

In the past, human mothers would have learned how to breastfeed by watching relatives and friends. For this reason, I strongly encourage pregnant women who want to breastfeed to go and spend some time with a friend who is successfully nursing her little one, and to befriend other breastfeeding mothers. In the case of breastfeeding, seeing really is believing. When new mothers have spent time with other breastfeeding mothers, they’re more likely to persevere if they encounter any initial challenges. 

Find out antenatally which of your friends and family had a positive experience of breastfeeding, so you can turn to them for support when your baby arrives. 

  • Inform yourself about breastfeeding antenatally

Read a good quality book on breastfeeding. Prof Amy Brown’s The Positive Breastfeeding Book is clear, comprehensive and evidence-based. 

Attend an antenatal breastfeeding workshop facilitated by an accredited Breastfeeding Counsellor or an IBCLC Lactation Consultant. The NCT includes a dedicated breastfeeding workshop alongside their antenatal birth classes. Most IBCLC Lactation Consultants offer private antenatal breastfeeding sessions. 

  • Find out about local breastfeeding drop-ins

Search out a good drop-in in your area, run by a Breastfeeding Counsellor accredited by one of the 4 breastfeeding charities (NCT, ABM, BfN or LLL) or by an IBCLC Lactation Consultant. You want to be sure the person providing you with support and information has in-depth training.

  • Find an IBCLC Lactation Consultant or Breastfeeding Counsellor who can visit you in the first week after your baby is born. 
  • Join an online breastfeeding support group (please see list below)

When women join an online support group antenatally, breastfeeding tends to go more smoothly as they get a better idea of what to expect, and what to do if they experience difficulties. 

  • Explore the website Basisonline so you can inform yourself about normal infant sleep

Frequent night waking is normal, breastfeeding lowers the chances of SIDS, and in the early months, night feeds are crucial for maintaining a mother’s milk supply because prolactin levels (the hormone that makes milk) are highest at night.

  • Make sure you have comfortable furniture and props

A comfortable L shaped sofa where you can put your feet up and have head support is ideal. Alternatively, a nice big foot rest, or poof, to support your feet when you’re breastfeeding on your sofa or comfortable armchair is great. Ensure you have lots of cotton cushions (velvet or satin are too slippery) and pillows. A special breastfeeding pillow isn’t usually helpful, unless you have very large breasts. 

It’s essential that you are completely comfy, with all of your body well-supported, because in the early months you are going to be spending hours and hours breastfeeding. 

  • Consider doing some antenatal hand expressing from 36 weeks

If you are having a low risk pregnancy, there is evidence that doing some antenatal expressing of colostrum (your first milk) from 36 weeks of pregnancy is safe and can be helpful in building your confidence in your body’s ability to feed your baby. Having some syringes of colostrum to take into hospital can act as a safety net and help you feel more relaxed.

  • Consider hiring a doula to provide you with practical and emotional support in the postnatal period. 

Unlike maternity nurses who take care of the baby, doulas focus on taking care of the mother, and empowering her to become confident in her mothering skills.

Steps to maximise your chances of successful breastfeeding once baby arrives

  • Uninterrupted skin to skin with your baby for the first two hours immediately following birth helps enormously with bonding. When babies breastfeed at this time, they are likely to ‘remember’ how to breastfeed later on. 
  • Spending the majority of the time in skin to skin with your baby in the early hours and days will help bring your mature milk in sooner. (See The Importance of Skin to Skin).
  • Keeping your baby close and feeding him or her as soon as they show any feeding cues will help you establish and maintain a good milk supply. When babies are in a cot or Moses basket, it’s easy to miss feeding cues. 
  • Until your baby has overtaken their birth weight, make sure they don’t go longer than circa 3 hours without breastfeeding. A baby who isn’t getting enough milk might not have the energy to wake and ask to be fed. 
  • Always offer both breasts at each feed. Once your baby has come off the first breast of their own accord, offer them the second breast. If they’ve fallen asleep, wake them up; nappy changing normally does the trick. However long they spend on the second breast, make sure to start the next feed on that second breast. Only offering one breast per feed can lead to slow weight gain for the baby and lower milk supply for the mum. 
  • Remember that it’s normal for newborn babies to want to feed A LOT! UNICEF talk about an average of 10 to 12 feeds in 24 hours, and many babies will feed more often than that. Their tummies are small, and breastmilk is easily digested. On top of that, newborn babies not only want to breastfeed for hunger and thirst, but also whenever they’re tired, sad, lonely, bored, in pain, feeling ill, wanting comfort or having a growth spurt. All this stimulation is excellent for your milk supply, and once your baby is 2 to 3 months old, you will start to reap the rewards, as your supply will be perfectly in tune with your baby’s needs, and they’ll have become a super-efficient feeder. 
  • Be prepared for periods of cluster feeding in the first couple of months. Cluster feeding (a period of 5 or more hours when your baby wants to feed almost incessantly) usually starts on the 2nd night of your baby’s life. Over the first week or so, cluster feeding gradually moves from the middle of the night to the slightly more civilised times of around 5 or 6pm to midnight. Having a stretch of several hours when a baby feeds very frequently is probably nature’s way of ensuring an excellent milk supply: the more often a baby feeds, and the emptier a mother’s breasts, the more milk she will make. 
  • Be prepared for the fact that it’s normal for your baby to want to spend the majority of their time in your arms and to refuse to sleep unless they are in physical contact with you or your partner; this contact is deeply comforting and physiologically regulating for a baby. We now know that responding lovingly to a baby’s need for food, closeness and comfort allows optimal brain development.
  • Know the signs that your baby is getting enough milk. In the early weeks, your baby’s nappy output and weight gain will give you all the information you need. 
  • Learn how to breastfeed your baby safely in the side-lying position as soon as you can. This position is technically the recovery position and will prevent you from rolling on to your baby even if you fall asleep while breastfeeding. Please read the Lullaby Trust leaflet Safer sleep for babies a guide for parents tounderstand how to bed share as safely as possible. At night it’s not safe to breastfeed sitting on a soft chair or sofa because if you fall asleep, your baby could end up in a dangerous position. 
  • Consider spending the first couple of weeks (or more) having as few visitors as possible. Being able to spend the majority of your time in your pyjamas makes life with a newborn less stressful. 
  • Arrange a visit from an IBCLC Lactation Consultant or Breastfeeding Counsellor in the first few days after your baby’s birth, to help optimise their latch and positioning at the breast, and to double check you’re on the right track. It’s impossible to exaggerate how much difference good attachment and positioning make to a mother’s comfort and to her milk supply. Often tiny adjustments can be transformational. 
  • If things don’t feel right, seek out expert help ASAP. Pain means something is wrong – don’t put up with it!
  • Be patient with yourself: breastfeeding is a physical skill that you learn, like dancing. It may take time and practice to get good at it, but after a while, it becomes muscle memory.
  • Believe that all your hard work in the early weeks will pay off. As a client once said to me: “I wish I’d known that I would end up actually enjoying breastfeeding, not just out of pride, but simply for the act itself and for the moments of calm with my son.” 

Breastfeeding resources for additional information and support:

Books on baby brain development:

Breastfeeding lines:

National Breastfeeding Helpline: 0300 100 0212 (9.30am to 9.30pm every day of the year).

NCT feeding line: 0300 330 0700 (option 1). The line is open from 8am to midnight, including bank holidays.

Association of Breastfeeding Mothers: 0300 330 5453 (9.30am -10.30pm).

La Leche League: 0345 120 2918 (8am to 11pm, seven days a week).

Facebook groups for nursing mothers:

Led by a team of maternal health experts, all women, mostly mothers, Biamother believes a healthy baby begins with a healthy mum. On the Biamother app find personalised guidance to help you eat, move and feel your best, as well as video workouts you can do at home that adapt to your changing body and needs. You can also chat one-on-one with your very own fitness coach. The app is free to download for 14 days on the Apple App Store (Google Play Store coming soon).