Breastfeeding your baby – the first week

Breastfeeding might be the most natural thing in the world – but it is also a skill you need to learn. Find out all you need to know about feeding your baby in the first week of life.

Just like learning to ride a bike or playing  a musical instrument, nobody should expect to ‘just know’ how to breastfeed. Like many aspects of feeding your baby – it’s a learning curve.

Associate Professor Rachel Laws, from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), says breastfeeding is the way nature intended for mums to feed their babies, but that doesn’t mean it will come naturally.  

“Like any new skill it can take time to master, with many mums and babies taking around six weeks to figure out what works best for them,” she says.

“During this time there is a lot of help and resources available to support new mums trying to breastfeed – it’s worth surrounding yourself with all the support you can find to help you.”

Good places to start are the Australian Breastfeeding Association helpline on 1800 686 268, your midwife, maternal and child health nurse or a lactation consultant.

Breastfeeding in the first week – what to expect

The body makes ‘first milk’, or colostrum, just after birth.

“Colostrum is the concentrated mix of nutrition which includes antibodies and white blood cells to help protect your baby against viruses and other infections. It provides the perfect first food and is easy to digest,” Associate Professor Laws says.  

“It also helps with recovery from pregnancy and childbirth. Breastfeeding stimulates the production of hormones which both reduce the risk of complications after delivery and help to contract your uterus back down to its pre-pregnant shape and size.”

Your baby’s first feed

Provided everything is as expected at birth, your baby should be immediately placed on your chest or stomach for skin-to-skin contact. This helps your baby feel secure and stimulates hormones that help you breastfeed. Your midwife will assist you if needed with attaching your baby to the breast for the first feed which should ideally be within one hour of birth.

How much to feed?

In the first 24 hours, your baby only needs a tiny amount of colostrum – just a few millilitres, or the size of a marble – for its tiny stomach.

At around three to five days, colostrum will transition into mature breastmilk, becoming less sticky and more of a white/opaque colour. As your breasts increase the amount of milk they make, your baby’s tummy will continue to grow. By 3-5 days your baby’s tummy will be the size  of a golf ball; after 10 days it’s about the size of a chicken egg.

“These small amounts of first milk provide tremendous short- and long-term health benefits for both you and your baby,” Associate Professor Laws says.

“Even though these are tiny amounts, newborns can take up to an hour to feed – but don’t worry, this gets much quicker with older babies often only taking five or 10 minutes!”

How often to feed?

Associate Professor Laws says as long as you continue to feed your baby whenever they are hungry and for as long as they want to feed, your milk supply will build. For most newborn babies this is likely to be 8-12 times over a 24-hour period. Milk supply works on a ‘supply and demand’ principle- the more you feed the more milk you will make. So avoid feeding by the clock, giving formula, water, dummies or bottles instead of breastfeeding. 

“Every baby is different and the length of time they feed for can change,” she says. “If you let your baby judge when he or she has had enough, your milk supply will adjust and they will usually get faster at feeding as they get bigger,” she says.

Expressing breastmilk is also common for a variety of reasons, but generally not recommended in the first 6 weeks as it can interfere with building your breastmilk supply.

“Remember that the amount of milk expressed is not an accurate reflection of how much breast milk can be produced.  Baby is much more efficient at removing milk from breast than breast pumps,” Associate Professor Laws says.

She says night feeds are important for establishing milk supply and for baby’s growth, particularly in the first three months.

How does breastfeeding benefit baby?

Breastmilk is:

  • The perfect food for your baby and changes to meet their needs
  • All the fluid, energy and nutrition that your baby needs until they’re around six months old
  • A special blend which will build your baby’s immune system to help protect them from getting sick, both now and in the future
  • Clean safe, free, convenient and always available.

How does breastfeeding benefit mum?

The evidence tells us that breastfeeding can help:

  • Protect you from diseases, like some cancers and osteoporosis
  • You to lose excess weight
  • Delay your period returning
  • Your baby to get to know you – a newborn’s eyes can only focus at 20-30cm which is about the distance from your breast to your face
  • Promote bonding with your baby – the cuddling your baby experiences when breastfeeding helps them to feel safe and loved while also promoting the release of relaxing hormones into your system. Don’t worry, Dad doesn’t need to miss out and can enjoy this bonding experience with plenty of cuddles and skin to skin contact too
  • You adjust to being a mother and enjoy the mothering journey.

Hungry for more information about infant feeding?

  • Free course: IPAN nutrition experts run a free, self-paced infant feeding course several times a year with all the latest evidence-backed advice for parents, students and healthcare professionals. The next course starts on Monday, 22 March.

Sign up to the course here 

  • INFANT program: Helping families get feeding right from the start of life is the focus of a team of infant feeding experts at IPAN. Through many years of research, they developed the INFANT program which is now being made available  in Victoria to help new parents establish healthy feeding habits and active play.

Find out if INFANT is available in your area