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Learning How to Breastfeed: The Basics

Learning how to breast feed can be intimidating, but we’re here to give you support on your journey. Let’s start with the basics.

Welcome to breastfeeding!

Ask any parents who has breastfed, and they will tell you: They were overwhelmed by breastfeeding at some point in their journey. Maybe it was getting their baby latched correctly in the beginning. Perhaps it was the middle-of-the-night feedings. Or perhaps it was an agonizing round of mastitis.

We all have stories to tell. But we also have stories about the time(s) you calmed your inconsolable babe with a quick nursing session, the satisfaction of seeing your baby grow and thrive, and those sweet, sleepy milk-drunk grins after a feed.

Breastfeeding is amazing, but in between those highs and lows, there are also a million routine, run-of-the-mill nursing sessions over the course of months or years. And one day, you’ll be done nursing, and you can look back and say, “Wow, I did that!”

But before that, it starts with learning how to breastfeed.

What to know before beginning breastfeeding

There’s no right or wrong way to approach breastfeeding. What’s more, some parts of breastfeeding success are entirely out of your control. You can’t predict whether your baby will have a tongue tie or whether you’ll be a prolific milk producer. You also can’t predict whether your baby will be an enthusiastic nurser or shun nursing the second you offer them a bottle.

So the first thing to know when starting breastfeeding is this: Go easy on yourself! You and your baby are doing the best you can.

Breastfeeding is a skill that you’ll perfect the more you practice it

No one is perfect at something the first time they do it. Or even the first ten times! That goes for breastfeeding as well.

With breastfeeding, there are a multitude of opportunities to practice getting things right. A newborn feeds so often throughout the day that each nursing session is a chance to improve.

Support is important

Whether you breastfeed for 4 months or 4 years, support plays an essential role in breastfeeding success. It’s an opportunity to talk openly about challenges and concerns, to celebrate milestones both big and small. And most importantly, it’s a place to learn.

Although the pandemic has changed how people come together, there are still options for finding support and community. Virtual support groups, Facebook communities, and breastfeeding courses are all hubs of digital breastfeeding conversations that allow parents to find their perfect fit in the breastfeeding community.

Your goals are important

Feed your baby only breast milk for the first 6 months. A year is better. Really, you should do 2 years. Or longer.

There’s a lot of input coming at you about what you should be doing.

For a new parent who is breastfeeding for the first time, those numbers can sound like an impossible goal. After all, getting through the first sleepless week is a tall order to fulfill.

So, take those “milestones” as well-meaning suggestions. Think about what works for you. Moreover, what goals are meaningful—and manageable—for you? How does returning to work fit? What is your family dynamic? Do you have local support? Set your goals based on the most important factors to you, not what others are telling you to do.

No matter what goals you set, take small steps. It’s the whole run-before-you-walk approach. Little successes are no less worth celebrating and will give you the confidence to take on bigger goals. (If that’s what you choose to do, that is.)

Some short-term goals we help parents work towards include:

  • Find the most comfortable position for nursing your baby
  • Watch a video on how to do breast massage
  • Make an appointment to work with a lactation consultant upon discharge or within the first 2-3 days after the baby is born
  • Connect with other breastfeeding parents online or in your local community

Once you’ve reached a goal, set a new one.

Breastfeeding skills

Remember how we said that breastfeeding was a skill! Here are the main skills that go into a successful breastfeeding journey.


A good latch won’t guarantee a bump-free breastfeeding journey, but boy, it sure helps. Why?

Your baby’s latch is what allows them to transfer breast milk during a feed. A good latch is comfortable for the breastfeeding parent and doesn’t create extra work for the baby. It also helps them effectively remove milk from your breasts. All in all, it helps them gain weight and thrive, and you establish a strong milk supply and avoid a whole range of breastfeeding problems.

A good latch is comfortable for the parent, but what else characterizes it?

  • The latch covers the nipple, as well as all or some of the areola
  • Baby breathes comfortably through their nose
  • Baby’s lips are flanged out like fish lips, particularly the bottom lip
  • Their ears wiggle or move
  • Their cheeks are rounded with no dimpling

You’ll also hear sounds of swallowing or gulping. Once your baby is done feeding, they’ll appear satisfied, relaxed, or even sleepy.

How to get a good latch, step by step

  1. Position your baby and yourself in the breastfeeding position of your choice.
  2. Hold your baby facing your breasts with their head in line with their body
  3. Holding your breast in one hand, brush your nipple against their upper lip to encourage them to open their mouth wide. If your baby doesn’t open wide, you can try expressing some colostrum or milk onto their lips.
  4. Bring your baby to your breast—not your breast to your baby—once their mouth is open wide.
  5. Maintain your hold on your breast until your baby has firmly latched and has begun sucking.

But what if your baby isn’t latching correctly?

You’ll likely recognize this because bad latches are frequently, if not always, accompanied by significant discomfort or nipple pain. This is because their latch doesn’t include enough of the areola, putting too much pressure on the nipple.

Other signs of latch issues include:

  • Baby sucks in cheeks during a nursing session
  • Lips are tucked or curled in during nursing instead of flanging out
  • Baby makes smacking or clicking noises during nursing
  • Baby seems frustrated or unsatisfied while on the breast or even pulling off the breast
  • Baby not gaining weight or losing weight
  • You’re experiencing a low or dropping milk supply

Recognize signs of a bad latch? Immediately unlatch your baby and try again. It’s okay if it takes several times to figure out your baby’s latch—this is one of those things that’s absolutely worth the effort to get correct. The more you nurse with a bad latch, the harder it can be to correct.

IBCLC pro tip: Getting the unlatch down

Whether you’re correcting a bad latch or need to unlatch your baby because they’ve fallen asleep on your breast or because the doorbell is ringing and you’ve got to get it, you need to know how to unlatch.

But any breastfeeding parent can tell you: Sometimes those babies can latch on hard! To make unlatching easier, gently slide your finger into the corner of their mouth. Move your finger between their gums and press down lightly to break the suction between their mouth and your breast.


If you picture a parent breastfeeding their baby, you probably imagine them cradling their little one in the crook of their arm.

The cradle hold is the classic breastfeeding position. Everyone knows it. But when it comes to positioning yourself and your baby, you’ve got some other options. You’ll spend lots of hours nursing—pick the ones that work well for you.

Cradle hold

As we said, this position is the most common one. Or at least the most well-known. The parent places their baby’s head in the crook of their arm with the baby’s face to their breast.

With the cradle hold, your baby rests on your chest, in your arms, or on a nursing pillow facing you, belly to belly. Cradle the baby’s head in the crook of one arm, with your hand supporting their bottom. It’s helpful to support the breast you’re feeding with your other hand.

Cross-cradle hold

The cross-cradle hold is a lot like the cradle hold, but you support your baby differently. Like the cradle hold, your baby rests across you, belly to belly. You use one arm to support your baby’s head while the opposite arm comes around behind your baby to support their head, neck, and shoulders.

With the cross-cradle position, you have a higher degree of control over their latch. Because you can provide more support for their head, neck, and shoulders, a deeper latch is possible (and more comfortable).

Football hold

Using the football hold, your baby rests along your side, just underneath your arm, with their face turned towards your breast. It’s usually necessary to use pillows to bring them up to breast level. Latch your baby on and support their head and neck with your hand. You can use either hand to do this.

If you’re a parent who delivered via c-section or is tandem nursing multiples or older children, the football hold is your friend.

Side-lying hold

This position is pretty straightforward—and pretty comfortable once you get it down. Lying on a bed, facing belly to belly, your baby rests with their face at breast level. You can place the arm you’re lying on underneath a pillow or support your baby by sliding it under their head.

This position is excellent for parents who have delivered via c-sections, those who have large breasts, breastfeeding parents recovering from an illness, and those who co-sleep with their baby.

Reclining or laid-back hold

With a reclining or laid-back hold—also known as biological nurturing—you’ll sit in a comfortable chair, couch, or in bed propped up with pillows. The goal isn’t to be entirely laid back but at approximately a 45-degree angle. Rest your baby on you so that you’re both facing belly to belly.

This position allows for a lot of flexibility for the baby—your baby can latch on from any position, whether across the breast, from the side, or even over the shoulder. (Sounds like a toddler nursing to anyone?)

This position works well because gravity helps a baby latch more deeply and hold its position.

Dangle feeding

Speaking of gravity! This position isn’t your everyday nursing position, but it’s helpful to know if you ever get clogged ducts or mastitis. Dangle feeding is a method of breastfeeding where the breastfeeding parent leans over the baby to nurse. This position uses gravity and the baby’s sucking to move the clog.

IBCLC pro-tip

No matter what nursing position you use, make sure to switch sides while nursing. Feeding at both breasts gives your baby the best chance to get all the nutrition they need. It also supports your milk supply and keeps you from developing clogged ducts (and mastitis!).

For parents with oversupply of milk, it may be necessary to block feed to manage milk production. However, lactation consultants should guide you through how to do this safely and effectively.

How often to feed

Babies eat a lot throughout the day, but what is the right amount for a growing infant?

There’s no one right answer because how often your baby feeds depends on multiple factors, from where they are in their growth curve to what your breast’s milk storage capacity is to whether or not your baby has started weaning.

That being said, assuming that your baby hasn’t started solids yet, babies will nurse anywhere from 8-12 times in 24 hours. For breastfed babies, overnight feedings are essential; your baby shouldn’t go more than four hours without feeding.

When can I stop waking my baby
to feed?

Middle-of-the-night feedings can be excruciating for new parents. Thankfully, there comes a time when you can stop waking a sleeping baby. That time is once your baby has developed a predictable pattern of gaining weight, at least four ounces per week for babies under 4 months. At that point, you let your baby sleep through the night. (If they’re willing and able to, that is.)

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Book a convenient online appointment with an IBCLC today

It’s entirely reasonable that they need to nurse more, though. As your baby goes through growth spurts, there will be times when they seemingly nurse nonstop. Typically, growth spurts only last 2-4 days. This is why you should feed based on your baby’s hunger cues rather than on a schedule.

Baby’s cues

Each baby is unique. They’ll have their hunger cues that you’ll learn as you progress in your nursing relationship. Here are common ones to look for, though.

  • Early hunger cues
    • Smacking or licking lips
    • Sucking on nearby items
    • Hand to mouth
    • Rooting
  • Middle hunger cues<
    • Fidgeting and squirming
    • Positioning for nursing
    • Hand to mouth
  • Late hunger cues
    • Fussing, agitated movements
    • Crying

Always feed your baby before they reach the late hunger stage. If your baby has reached late-stage hunger cues, console them before feeding—otherwise, they’ll be too distraught to nurse.

How long do I nurse my baby?

Feeding sessions can last as long as 20 minutes on each breast, or they can be as short as 5 minutes. Again, this answer depends on several factors:

  • Whether your milk supply has fully transitioned
  • How well your baby is latching
  • How quick your letdown reflex and/or milk flow are
  • Whether your baby is distractible, focused, sleepy, etc. at the breast

Don’t restrict your baby’s time at the breast. Your baby should be allowed to feed until they are satisfied. Ideally, you should wait for your baby to unlatch on their own. If they don’t, wait until you hear their nurse pattern change from an active suck-swallow pattern to flutter nursing.

Signs your baby is getting enough to eat

You can tell a lot about whether your baby is getting enough breast milk by the following clues. Your baby should:

  • Make at least six wet diapers and three to four dirty diapers in 24 hours starting around Day 7
  • Gain weight steadily along their growth curve—four to seven ounces per week is standard for newborns, but weight gain varies.
  • Appear happy and content after most feedings.

Tips for starting breastfeeding

Initiate breastfeeding as soon as possible

The first hour after giving birth—known in the birth world as the “magic hour”—is ideal for breastfeeding. Nursing during this period jump-starts your breastfeeding hormone—specifically, the all-important oxytocin—and helps establish your breastfeeding relationship with your baby.

Parents often worry that if they have a c-section, they won’t be able to breastfeed right after birth. It is possible—just make sure to communicate this plan clearly to your medical care team and have it included in your birth plan.

Skin-to-skin contact is important

Right after birth, skin-to-skin time is essential, but it’s no less essential once you’re home from the hospital. Skin-to-skin can be done with both the breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding parent—and it has benefits for everyone involved:

  • Releases stress-reducing hormones for both parents and baby
  • Stabilizes baby’s heart rate, breathing rate, blood sugar, and temperature
  • Promotes milk flow and supports a good milk supply
  • Boosts your baby’s immune system
  • Helps your baby gain weight faster
  • Lowers risk of postpartum mood disorders
  • Promotes parent-child bonding

Feed frequently and on-demand

Yes, we know we mentioned that already, but it’s really important. Many breastfeeding parents think that they need to wait a certain amount of time between feeds to let their breasts “fill back up,” but the truth is, doing that can hurt your supply.

Feed your baby as often as they are hungry/showing cues OR between 8-12 times a day. Remember, breastfeeding is for hunger, thirst, comfort, and safety. Because your milk production is based on supply and demand, your breasts make the milk your baby needs.

As your baby gets older, of course, the amount of milk they need will change depending on weaning, supplementing, solids, and your overall breastfeeding relationship with your child.

Be patient

Easier said than done, we know. But if you’re learning how to breastfeed for the first time, there is a learning curve. Be kind to yourself as you and your baby find what works for you both.

Find ways to relax during the process. Maybe this means treating yourself to your favorite tea or watching an episode of your guilty-pleasure TV show during a nursing session. Perhaps it’s buying a nursing cover that makes you smile when you look at it. Maybe it’s getting your partner to tag in after a feed so you can recharge.

As we said, find what works for you.

Keep your baby with you

Soaking up the baby snuggles is delightful, but cuddling your baby does more than make you feel good. It calms your baby, reduces their risk of sudden infant death, and supports your breastfeeding goals.

If you’re expecting, talk with your healthcare provider about rooming-in after your baby is born. Keeping your baby in your room after delivery helps you start breastfeeding sooner and longer. It also gives you more opportunity to practice skin-to-skin contact, which encourages all those juicy breastfeeding hormones.

Get help when you need it

Support helps throughout your entire postpartum journey—there’s really no time at which it’s not helpful.

Before having your baby, you can benefit from the support of breastfeeding education. These classes will teach you the skills you need to know and what to expect when you start breastfeeding.

Support immediately after your baby’s birth is crucial. Even if you’ve taken a breastfeeding class, there’s nothing like that first breastfeeding session to find out how it all works. A lactation consultant can help you work through latching, positioning, and other feeding questions in those early hours and days of breastfeeding.

Once you’re in the swing of breastfeeding, you can still benefit from support. We know parents who joined groups in their communities even when their babies were a year or older—and they were still able to benefit from the support.

Breastfeeding is hard work, after all. Talking to parents and families who have experienced the same or similar challenges can feel like a relief. You learn that there’s a wide range of normal, that everyone struggles at times, and that there are so many ways to be a loving, nurturing parent.

If you’re starting your breastfeeding journey, congratulations! You’re about to embark on a wild, wonderful experience. We’d love to make sure you’re ready for it: Book a convenient online video appointment with a Nest Collaborative IBCLC.

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