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Breastfeeding: separating fact from fiction

01 August 2022

From 1 to 7 August is World Breastfeeding Week and this year’s theme is about protecting breastfeeding by making it a shared responsibility among us all.

By creating a warm chain of support for breastfeeding that includes health systems, workplaces and communities at all levels of society, it’s hoped that an environment that easily enables breastfeeding can be established.

In order to do this, we’re sharing some of the Australian Breastfeeding Association's information aimed at breaking down the common myths that exist around breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding: fact or fiction?

Fact: It is not normal for breastfeeding to hurt

Many mothers feel some nipple pain that ceases beyond the initial attachment in the early weeks. If pain lasts beyond the initial attachment or if there are signs of nipple damage, these things usually mean that a baby is not attached well to his mother’s breast. If breastfeeding hurts, get help as soon as possible. Our lactation consultants at St John of God Health Care are here to support you throughout your pregnancy and beyond. 

Fact: Most mothers can produce enough breast milk

It’s true, most mothers can make more than enough milk for their baby (or babies!). Sometimes having too much breast milk is common. However, if a mother has a low supply it is usually because the baby is not taking enough milk at the breast. Usually, feeding more often will increase supply, but you may find it helpful to talk to one of our lactation consultants to check that your baby is feeding well.

Fact: Breast size has nothing to do with milk production

Breast size depends on how much fatty tissue you have. The larger the breast, the more fatty tissue and vice versa. It is the amount of glandular (milk producing) tissue in your breast that matters. Usually, if you follow your baby’s lead and breastfeed whenever your baby shows that they need a feed (by squirming, grunting, mouthing her hands and nuzzling into your breast), you will have plenty of milk.

Fact: It is common for babies to spit up milk

Babies spend a lot of time lying down, have a liquid diet and a short oesophagus, the muscular tube that leads from the mouth to the stomach. These factors make it common for babies to spit up milk (posset or bring up milk), especially after a feed. This is usually nothing to worry about.

Fact: Night feeds are important for babies and mothers

Prolactin (the hormone that tells the breast to make milk) is highest at night, so night feeds are important for your milk supply. Babies have small stomachs that need to be re-filled often, including during the night. Night feeds ensure that a mother and her baby have close contact around the clock.

Fact: Breastfeeding mothers get more sleep

During the first three months, parents of exclusively breastfed babies may actually sleep longer at night (by 40 minutes on average) than parents of babies who are given formula. Giving formula at night to try to get more sleep doesn’t work. Missing night-time breastfeeds can reduce your milk supply. In the time you take to make up a bottle in the middle of the night, your baby may become more distressed. Once they get used to it, most mothers find they can pick up and feed their baby without waking fully. Breastfeeding hormones help both mother and baby relax and get back to sleep quickly.

Fact: You don’t need to wait for your breasts to fill up with milk

You don’t need to wait a certain amount of time before putting your baby back to your breast – there is always milk there. Your breasts are making milk all the time. The rate is related to how much your baby drinks. If they drink more/less, your breasts will make more/less. So if your baby still seems hungry after a feed, you can put your baby back to the breast and there will be more milk there for a top up.

Fact: It is easy to tell how much breast milk your baby is getting

There are ways to tell whether your baby is getting enough (e.g. plenty of wet and dirty nappies, gaining weight, meeting developmental milestones etc.).

Fact: Soft breasts do not mean you have ‘lost’ your milk

Many mothers worry that they don’t have enough milk if their breasts feel soft, or if they cannot feel their let-down reflex. After the early weeks, your body adjusts to your baby’s needs. The full feeling that you may have had in your breasts in the early weeks disappears. This simply means that your milk supply is now 'in sync' with your baby’s needs.

Some mothers never feel their let-down reflex. Fortunately there are other ways to tell when your let-down reflex occurs. Your baby’s sucking changes from a shallow, quick suck to a deeper, more rhythmic suck and milk may drip from the other breast

Fact: Your baby doesn’t just breastfeed for food

This often comes as a surprise to parents, but babies go to the breast for many reasons — they may be hungry, thirsty, tired, hurt, over-stimulated, bored, lonely, in the mood for cuddles, etc. All are equally valid reasons to breastfeed.

Fact: Milk supply cannot be measured by the amount of milk you can express or pump

The amount of milk you can express is a poor measure of how much milk you are making. There are many mothers who breastfeed their babies just fine but who can’t express much. A baby who is feeding well triggers your let-down reflex and gets the milk from your breasts better than a breast pump can.

Fact: Breast milk never loses its nutritional and protective value

Breast milk changes to meet the needs of a child. It continues to provide excellent nutrition, immune and other health and emotional benefits for as long as a child continues to breastfeed.

Fact: Many mothers find breastfeeding hard at first

Breastfeeding is natural, but in today’s world it is often not easy. Mothers don’t fail at breastfeeding, but society often fails mothers. Some of the factors that make breastfeeding harder are birthing practices, poor breastfeeding information, marketing of formula products, lack of support and concerns about breastfeeding in public. Setting up a support network and getting good information before your baby is born is vital. Also don’t be afraid to ask to for help.

Fact: Babies sleep through the night when they are developmentally ready

Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone and will occur when your baby is ready (usually somewhere between 6 weeks and 6 years). Most people who say that a baby should be sleeping through the night from a certain age think that they only wake because of hunger. Once your baby is older and feeding well, they may say that they are waking at night because you don’t have enough milk or because they are developing a bad habit.

Feeding at night will help maintain your milk supply. Children wake at night for lots of reasons. Who is to say that each and every one of those reasons is not just as important as hunger? They are all important reasons for the child. Many mothers find that they can take a relaxed approach. They trust that their child will sleep through the night at some point, even if they do nothing about it. This can help them feel better about the whole issue. They have peace of mind knowing that their child reached this milestone in their own time, when they felt secure enough to do so.

Fact: A breastfeeding baby does not need extra water in hot weather

Breast milk contains all the water a baby needs. In hot weather, just like adults drink more, it is common for a baby to want to breastfeed more often too.

Fact: A mother with an infection or mastitis should keep breastfeeding

With very rare exceptions, a mother will actually protect her baby if she continues to breastfeed when she has an infection. By the time the mother starts to show symptoms of an infection (e.g. fever, cough, diarrhoea, rash or vomiting etc.) her baby has already been exposed to the bug. She will have produced immune-promoting factors in her breast milk, which will help to protect her baby from getting sick. If the baby does get sick, he will be less sick if he keeps breastfeeding. Sometimes it is the baby who has passed the infection on to his mother, even though the baby did not show any signs of illness. A breast infection (e.g. mastitis) is not a reason to stop breastfeeding. Indeed, mastitis will resolve more quickly if the mother continues to breastfeed from the affected breast. Keeping the milk moving is very important if you have mastitis. The milk is quite safe for the baby to drink.

Fact: You don’t need a perfect diet to breastfeed

In most cases a breastfeeding mother does not have to worry about what she eats. The breast milk concentration of only a few nutrients can be affected by a mother's diet. Even mothers who have a very limited diet will usually make quality breast milk for their babies. A mother should eat a wide variety of healthy foods for her own health and wellbeing, but her diet has very little, if any, effect on her milk supply.

Fact: Nearly all shapes and sizes of nipples and breasts are fine for breastfeeding

Mothers with various shaped/sized breasts/nipples can breastfeed. Babies breastfeed, they don’t nipple feed. Truly inverted nipples (ie where the nipples are completely stuck inwards) are very rare. Some mothers have nipples that don't stand out or nipples that take more 'coaxing' to come out. With good help and persistence, most mothers find that breastfeeding becomes easier and that their nipples stay out more and more as their baby gets better at breastfeeding. Even if your baby has problems at the start, he will eventually get the hang of it, as long as you maintain a good milk supply. If you are concerned about your nipples, talk to one of our lactation consultants.

Fact: A pregnant mother can continue to breastfeed her baby

In most cases, if the mother and child desire, breastfeeding can continue throughout pregnancy. However, some mothers find their milk supply decreases due to the hormones of pregnancy and some babies wean themselves at this time. However, some mothers continue breastfeeding the older child even after the new baby is born (tandem feeding).

How can we separate fact from fiction?

  • Talk to one of the qualified lactation consultants at our maternity hospitals.
  • Speak to an Australian Breastfeeding Association breastfeeding counsellor by calling their Breastfeeding Helpline on 1800 mum 2 mum (1800 686 268)
  • Look at the Australian Breastfeeding Association website and their other resources for current and accurate breastfeeding information. 

  • Mix with other breastfeeding women.
  • Seek a second (or third) opinion.
  • Be confident in your innate ability to breastfeed. Nature has designed mothers and babies to breastfeed.
St John of God Health Care
At St John of God Health Care we use a variety of trusted experts and caregivers to create our blog posts.