How to prepare for breastfeeding when you're still pregnant

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Before I gave birth, I devoted approximately 98 per cent of my time planning the delivery, 2 per cent choosing the baby's first outfit and 0 per cent thinking about breastfeeding. As far as I was concerned, breastfeeding was an either/or situation: you wanted to breastfeed or you didn't. I wanted to breastfeed. Simple.

Except it wasn't simple. A day or so after the birth, midwives told me I didn't have enough milk and needed to offer my baby a formula top-up. Three months post-birth, I found myself juggling breastfeeding, formula top-ups, long sessions expressing milk and an overwhelming sense that breastfeeding hadn't turned out how I hoped.

I'm not alone in starting motherhood with the intention to exclusively breastfeed. According to a 2010 study, 96 per cent of all new mothers initiate breastfeeding, but by three months only 39 per cent are still exclusively breastfeeding.

While every woman's breastfeeding journey is different, many hurdles are shared. Knowing what to expect will enable you to make informed decisions if - or when - you meet challenges along the way. Here are 12 breastfeeding tips to think about BEFORE you have have the baby.

1. Make a plan

According to Nicole Bridges from the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA), early planning is extremely important: "Preparation and information are key factors to ensuring successful breastfeeding." A breastfeeding plan details how you would like to initiate feeding. Much like a birth plan, it can be as long or as short as you like. Writing down your preferences helps crystallise what is important to you in terms of feeding your baby. It also gives partners and caregivers clear information about your wishes.

2. Take a class

Breastfeeding antenatal classes can be a great opportunity to ask questions, find out information and include partners in breastfeeding discussions prior to the birth. The ABA run education classes, as do a number of state health authorities. Local hospitals may also run breastfeeding information sessions and clinics.

3. Know your hospital

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Postnatal care can differ from hospital to hospital. Some hospitals don't have the resources to support skin-to-skin contact, and some may advocate specific feeding techniques.

Once you know how you'd like to initiate breastfeeding, check with your chosen hospital to see how they can support you. Also ask if the hospital is 'Baby Friendly' accredited. Developed in 1991 by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, the Baby Friendly Health Initiative (BFHI) supports breastfeeding mothers.

"A key component of the BFHI program is ensuring staff in each facility have the skills needed to provide encouraging, accurate and consistent breastfeeding information to pregnant women and mothers," Nicole says.

4. Get packing

It's a good idea to include a few items in your hospital bag specifically to help with breastfeeding. Midwife and lactation consultant Sue Nettleton suggests hydrogel packs or cabbage leaves and Lansinoh cream to soothe cracked nipples. Throw in absorbent breast pads and a good bra, too.

ABA's Nicole Bridges also recommends having a breastfeeding helpline number on hand, saying, "Many women call us from their hospital bed if they need additional advice and support."

Now is also a good time to think about buying a breast pump. Pumps can help with several common issues, such as insufficient milk supply and mastitis, while also giving you more flexibility, letting you get out and about while leaving bub and some milk with dad or another carer – or just letting dad get more involved in feeds.

(Read our guide to choosing a breast pump to help you know which will be best for you and your baby.)

5. Know that how you give birth can make a difference

Different types of birth can affect breastfeeding initiation; for example, an emergency caesarean may mean your milk takes a little longer to come in.

Regardless of how you give birth, successful breastfeeding can be established in most cases. Understanding how your delivery can impact breastfeeding will help manage your expectations and allow you to adapt your plan according to your birthing experience.

6. Know when to ask for help

Breastfeeding is natural, but not everyone will find it easy. If you're having problems, Sue Nettleton says seeking early support is important, adding, "Getting help within the first two weeks can boost confidence and establish a strong attachment between mum and baby."

Even if your feeding starts well, you may still encounter issues. Your baby could suddenly opt for frequent feeds or you might need advice about how to continue feeding once you return to work. Whatever the issue, have confidence in your support network and the ability of trained counsellors to provide help when you need it.

7. Get your partner onside

Watching a mum struggle to breastfeed her child can be particularly distressing for partners. Naturally, they may want to find a quick fix to solve the situation, however, this could undermine mum's confidence.

Nicole Bridges says partner support is important in successful breastfeeding. "Women who have a supportive partner are 10 times more likely to continue breastfeeding than those without that support," she says. Ensuring your partner understands how important breastfeeding is to you and your baby will help them provide support during any difficult stages.

8. All breasts are different

There is no such thing as ideal breasts for feeding: perfect breasts and nipples come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and colour. This also applies once your milk comes in.

"Not all breastfeeding breasts are constantly engorged and leaking milk," says Sue Nettleton. "Some breasts can be soft and still have a perfectly adequate supply of milk."

A woman's ability to feed her baby cannot be judged on whether her breasts are big, small, soft, hard, leaky or dry.

9. Know the warning signs

Occasionally, breastfeeding can lead to illness or complications. Most conditions won't require you to stop breastfeeding and are easily treated. Knowing the warning signs and symptoms for conditions such as mastitis, nipple thrush and blocked ducts will ensure you seek treatment quickly.

10. Trust your instincts

One of the most common complaints about breastfeeding is the plethora of conflicting advice from friends and professionals alike. It can be frustrating, but Nicole Bridges says mums should trust their instinct.

"We see many women who say feeding is hurting or not feeling right and who have been told the nipples look fine," she says. "If it doesn't feel right, it's not right. Don't be afraid to keep talking to people until you find someone who will listen."

11. It gets better

Some women have heard terrible stories of mastitis and low milk production, and are worried that they'll experience the same. The truth is, most women can produce enough milk to meet their baby's needs, and find that once they have established breastfeeding, it's a simple, convenient and even enjoyable way to feed their baby.

12. But ... it's OK to stop

Fulfilling the desire to breastfeed is extremely important to many women - but motherhood doesn't happen in a vacuum. Work, additional children, exhaustion and stress may mean that breastfeeding just doesn't work out. With the right support, most breastfeeding difficulties can be overcome, but the emotional well being of mother and baby is more important than plugging away at something that causes prolonged stress and unhappiness.

As Sue Nettleton says, stopping doesn't mean failing: "If a woman is really struggling to breastfeed and has exhausted all the avenues she wants to pursue, she needs to know it's okay to stop."