The Early Days of Breastfeeding: Common Problems and How to Troubleshoot

The first few days after birth can be the most trying for many mothers as they navigate breastfeeding. Our Expert & Family Medicine Physician, Dr. Rebecca Berens, gives her tips for beginning to breastfeed when you welcome baby!

The most important time to establish your milk supply is in the first few weeks of your baby’s life. Breast milk production is based on supply and demand, so the more the infant demands milk by feeding at the breast, the more milk you will produce.

Blog banner the early days of breastfeeding

Though starting to breastfeed can be tricky business (here's an article on preparing to breastfeed), here's what you need to know before you begin:

Skin to Skin Contact

It is recommended that as long as mom and baby are both medically stable, the infant be placed directly on mom’s chest at birth. Skin to skin contact is important for regulating baby’s temperature and promoting bonding between mom and baby. This bonding increases maternal Oxytocin production, which is important for milk production. Skin to skin contact is also important for helping baby latch, as baby has several natural reflexes that allow to to find the nipple and latch. Most babies will spontaneously latch at the breast in the first hour or so of life when placed on mom’s chest.

Deep, Asymmetric Latch

The key to “demand” for milk is making sure that baby has a good latch. An ineffective latch will not allow the baby to transfer much milk from the breast. Therefore, even though the baby is latched frequently, if milk is not being removed or transferred well, the breast will not be stimulated to produce more. An ideal latch is deep with the majority of the areola within the baby’s mouth, and slightly asymmetric. Later in the this article, I'll give recommendations on how to encourage a good latch.

There are several resources available online to help with latching - I recommend If latching or feeding is painful, or if there is any trauma to the nipple, it is important to involve a lactation professional early to help assess the situation and correct this to prevent nipple damage and low supply. If mom and baby need to be separated or if the baby is not able to remove adequate milk by direct feeding alone, it is recommended that the mother express breast milk to empty the breast at least 8-12 times per day. This will allow her to build and maintain supply while these issues are being addressed.

When To Introduce Bottle and/or Pacifier

If infant supplementation is needed due to separation of mom and baby for medical reasons, or while addressing problems with low supply or inadequate transfer of milk, it is recommended to avoid bottle use and supplement using alternative methods at the breast or with a cup or spoon until a good latch is well established (usually around 3-4wks old). If bottles will be needed later for feeding, such as if the mother will be separated from the baby while working, it is recommended to introduce the bottle by around 6 weeks old. Later introduction can sometimes result in infants that will refuse to use a bottle, which can be very stressful for the mother.

Baby latching to mother's breast

Steps to a Good Latch

When trying to get your baby to latch properly, there are several steps you can take to make sure baby is latching well. Remember, how it feels and works is much more important than how it looks.

1. Aim nipple to baby's nose

2. Support neck and shoulders, don't only hold behind the head

3. Hold breast like a sandwich

4. When baby lifts chin and mouth opens wide, guide them towards the breast

Common Breastfeeding Problems & Troubleshooting

Nobody's breastfeeding experience is perfect and you are bound to run into problems at some point. Have no fear! These problems, for the most part, are totally normal. If you do experience issues, be sure to also contact your doctor and/or lactation consultant for help.

Low Milk Supply

Low milk supply can be a result of medical or anatomical problems, but is more commonly due to inadequate demand resulting in inadequate supply. Medical conditions that can impact milk production include diabetes, thyroid problems and other endocrine diseases, severe anemia, and retained placental tissue. A history of certain breast surgeries can also impact supply. Some women have anatomic differences in their breasts such as tubular breasts or insufficient glandular tissue that also result in inadequate milk production.

Inadequate demand is commonly due to infrequent breast emptying (in the newborn period breasts should be emptied minimum 8 times in 24 hours, preferred 10-12 times in 24 hours). This can happen when milk supplementation is provided, as infants therefore take in less milk at the breast or feed at the breast less frequently. If supplementation is provided, mothers should pump to replace these feedings to maintain supply.

Inadequate demand can also be caused by an inefficient latch which results in incomplete emptying of the breast. This can happen if the infant is born before 39 weeks, even if not premature, or if there is an anatomic problem such as a tongue tie. It is important that a lactation professional assess these situations early to address any problems and help create a plan to develop and maintain adequate milk supply.