How important is the very first breastfeed?

Updated: Jun 22, 2019

The first breastfeed is critical to physiological stabilisation of the mother and baby. Taking your baby into your arms immediately is important. The early stimulation of milk flow increases your oxytocin release. Maternal release of oxytocin has major benefits that contract and reduce the size of the uterus (involution), assists descent of the placenta, controls blood loss and initiates the rhythmical flow of colostrum. It is your right to be sure your baby is not taken from you unless urgent and the first breastfeed is not interrupted for routine procedures. Weighing, measuring, bathing or administering vitamin K or vaccinations can wait until after the first breastfeed or until you have offered informed consent.

Giving birth and meeting your baby (or babies) for the first time is a tumultuous event, the beginning of a new phase in your lives. The first union transitions from knowing your baby’s every movement, to the toil of labour, the giving of birth, to the strong desire to nourish and nurture your baby. The healthy, unmedicated newborn capably moves leisurely toward the breast soon after birth activating distinct neurosensory behaviours and reflexes that guide smell, taste, hearing, seeing and touching.

Western cultural practice commonly separates or interrupts mother and baby at birth. This interferes with the known benefits of early union and the first breastfeed. Immediate togetherness at the time of birth is essential. The new mother transitions to a stronger, highly instinctive woman who, in her own time, needs to hold her baby in her arms, close to her warm body, to protect her baby from others. It is important that others don’t touch unnecessarily. This connection, a moment in time, triggers a cascade of maternal hormones, especially the love hormone oxytocin and the mammal mother and baby are united.

The first breastfed may take a leisurely 2 - 3 hours from both breasts and is critical to the baby drawing maternal colostrum, the very first fluid the baby swallows after birth. Colostrum is rich in nutrients and immune properties, thick in substance, low in volume and yellowish in colour. It is the perfect maternal made substance suitable for preparing the newborn gut. Colostrum is swallowed prior to the gradual increase of breast milk volume over the next 72 - 96 hours following birth.

If the baby doesn’t get the opportunity to progressively draw down the colostrum in those first 2 – 3 hours, the increasing volume of transitional milk banks up in the lateral segment of the breast (Tail of Spence). The colostrum is quite thick and if it stagnates it may not allow the increasing milk volume to come through the ductal networks. This results in painful breast engorgement.

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Dr Robyn Thompson

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