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How to feed your baby is a personal decision; one that you're best able to make understanding what your options are. Here we explore the benefits, the mechanics and process of breastfeeding.

Be prepared
The size and shape of your breasts bears no relevance on your ability to breastfeed. When the time comes, it is your hormones and milk ducts that will regulate milk production. It's a case of supply and demand. As long as your baby keeps feeding, you will continue to produce milk.

Attending antenatal classes will help clear up any issues surrounding breastfeeding and your doctor or midwife should be able to answer any specific questions you may have. Your hospital may also assign you with a breastfeeding counsellor - take advantage of her!

How Breastfeeding Works
During your last trimester, you're producing high levels of oestrogen and progesterone, which stimulate the glands to produce colostrum. Colostrum is a pre-cursor to breast milk, and provides your baby with water, vitamins, minerals and antibodies until your breast milk comes in. Your body will start the production of milk a few days after the birth.

Following birth, hormones trigger the production of breast milk. When baby sucks, nerve endings in the areola are stimulated and send signals to the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to release prolactin, the hormone that stimulates milk production. The pituitary gland also releases oxytocin, which causes the muscle fibres around the milk glands to contract, squeezing the milk from the glands to the ducts. This is known as the let-down reflex and when your breasts are full, your baby's sucking, his cries or even his proximity to you can trigger it!

To Feed or Not to Feed?
Breastfeeding is a loving and nurturing experience that will strengthen your relationship and continue the emotional bond you've developed during pregnancy. It contains all the nutrients a new baby needs, including antibodies to fight off infections, including respiratory illness and ear infections. It reduces the risk of eczema, asthma, and childhood diabetes and leukaemia. Breastfeeding is also convenient and much less expensive than buying formula. However, there is nothing to suggest that bottle-feeding harms or deprives your child. Loving mothers who are unable or don't wish to breastfeed will have just as close and caring a relationship with their babies.

The nutritional advantages of breastfeeding are a convincing argument in favour of breastfeeding over bottle-feeding. But mothers must choose what is right for them. Women who breastfeed because of guilt or pressure to do so are not necessarily doing the best thing for their baby. Take care to ensure that feeding is a time of closeness and calm between you both and you'll be doing the best thing for baby, regardless of whether you breastfeed or bottle-feed.

Your Newborn
If you've decided to breastfeed, let your doctor and midwife know before labour. There is evidence that the sooner breastfeeding begins, the more likely you are to be successful, so you'll want to be ready for a feed if your baby is hungry as soon as he is born. If he's not interested in feeding for the first 24 hours, don't be too worried, he's resting from the delivery.

Latching On and Feeding
Correct 'latching on' is important for both you and baby. When done incorrectly, you'll find it very painful and he won't be able to get the milk he needs. You'll continue producing milk, but your baby won't be able to remove it, and it's likely you'll suffer from engorgement (over-filled breasts). The majority of problems breatsfeeding women encounter are due to babies latching on incorrectly.

Get into a comfortable sitting position, support yourself with cushions and hold your baby on it's side with it's head level with your breast. Until your baby learns to 'root' for your nipple, stimulate his reflex by gently brushing his cheek closest to your breast. He'll turn his head towards your breast instinctively and open his mouth to take the nipple. Make sure he takes the full areola into his mouth, not just the nipple. If it hurts, or you can see his cheeks going in and out as he sucks, he hasn't latched on properly. Simple insert the tip of your little finger into the corner of his mouth to break the suction and try again. Be sure he can breathe freely through his nose.

An average feed takes about 20 minutes (10 minutes each breast), but each baby is different. Follow your baby's preferences; when his sucking becomes less vigorous, it's time to switch him to the other breast. Remember as your baby gets older and sucks more efficiently, feeding will take less time.

Useful Tips
- When baby is feeding correctly, his mouth will be wide open and you'll see his ears and temples wiggling as he sucks.
- Breast pads can save any embarrassment that might be caused from leaking breasts. Replace pads after every feed to avoid infection.
- Let your baby suck for as long as he likes on the first side so he gets both foremilk and hindmilk. Foremilk is the watery, thirst-quenching milk and hind-milk is the richer, creamier part.
- If possible, try to nurse from both breasts at every feed.
- Use a soothing lotion to relieve sore nipples, especially immediately following feeds.
- Rotate the breast you start with at each feed. This ensures each side is stimulated equally.

For more information on breastfeeding, contact The Breastfeeding Network or The National Childbirth Trust online or their Breastfeeding Help Line - 0870 444 8708 (8am - 10pm).

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