One of the biggest decisions a new mother can make is whether to breast or bottle feed her newborn. To help increase awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services designated August National Breastfeeding Awareness Month.

Research demonstrates that babies who have been exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life are less likely to develop respiratory illnesses, ear infections, and diarrhea. It may also help prevent childhood obesity.

Breastfeeding Support

While breast feeding is a natural way to nourish your baby, it still takes some practice. Every infant is different and it can take some time for a mother and a newborn to perfect their feeding strategies. During that time, it is important for new moms to be patient and to get support as they learn this new but important skill.

It’s normal to experience some discomfort in the very beginning. Offer your baby the breast often in those early days but if you do feel the telltale signs of engorgement (tight, firm, swollen, and warm skin) don’t panic. It will get easier as you and your baby develop a rhythm and your body regulates your milk supply to meet your baby’s demands. In the meantime, use a breast pump or hand express to relieve pressure.

If you experience any pain, consult your physician. The sooner you get help, the more successful breastfeeding is likely to be. Hospitals and pediatricians can provide referrals to lactation consultants who can be an invaluable resource in those early weeks. Local support groups, online social media groups, friends, family members, and breastfeeding guides on the internet can yield information to help you overcome breastfeeding obstacles.

Eating Well

A healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, is essential to ensuring that you produce enough milk for your baby. It’s also important to know which foods and beverages to avoid.

The FDA recommends that nursing women limit their fish intake to prevent mercury exposure. Certain spices, garlic, and onions can make babies gassy and uncomfortable. Excessive caffeine may make it more difficult for your little one to fall asleep. Also, while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting alcohol consumption to one to two drinks per week, the March of Dimes recommends avoiding alcohol entirely.

Balancing Work

If you have to return to work before you are ready to wean your baby, you can continue to provide breast milk for your newborn. The first step is to get a good breast pump. Electric pumps work far better than manual ones, but they are expensive. Ask your hospital or pediatrician about breast pump rentals.

Before you have your baby, tell your employer that you intend to pump at work. An amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 protects your right to do this for the first year of your baby’s life. Find out if there is a private place at work where you can pump.

Before you return to work, start pumping at least once a day, and give your baby the bottle. Have your caregiver give your baby the bottle, too, so everyone is comfortable with the process before you go back to work. Know there will be a few hiccups as you get in a rhythm. Keep at it. You’re doing a wonderful thing for your baby!

When to Wean

It is recommended that mothers breastfeed their infants for the first six to 12 months of life. If you want to continue breastfeeding after that, it is up to you and your baby.

While it is true that a small number of women are unable to breastfeed their babies, the majority of new moms can be successful with proper support, education, and guidance. For more information about breastfeeding, speak to your healthcare provider or lactation consultant, or visit the La Leche League International website.