Breastfeeding can be a challenge for those who choose it. UCLA Health is here to help
Breastfeeding is simple and natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“It’s really hard,” says new mom Cindy Hudson, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at UCLA Health who experienced breastfeeding challenges firsthand when she gave birth in December to her first child.
“Even though it’s natural and it’s amazing and it’s the best way to bond with your baby,” she says, “it’s still hard and you really need to work at it.”
August is National Breastfeeding Month, according to the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee.
Health entities across the globe — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the California Department of Public Health and the World Health Organization — recommend babies be exclusively breastfed for their first 6 months of life. Complementary foods should be introduced after 6 months and recent recommendations support breastfeeding for two years or beyond.
UCLA Health supports breastfeeding families year-round with the information, skills and confidence they need to successfully breastfeed their babies, says UCLA Health lactation consultant Genevieve Thomas, IBCLC. Lactation consultants like Thomas offer in-person and virtual appointments to help parents overcome challenges as they learn to breastfeed their newborns.
“Breastfeeding often does come easily for the baby, but it’s a learned skill for our birthing parents and the people who are supporting them,” Thomas says. “It’s really important for parents to learn about breastfeeding before they deliver their baby. It helps them to be prepared for some of the challenges that can come in the first week of their baby’s life.”
For Dr. Hudson, support from lactation consultants and a network of friends has been key to her breastfeeding success, she says. She has continued to exclusively breastfeed her son for seven months, despite having returned to work six weeks after his birth.
“He has never had formula or any other supplementation, which I’m very proud of— especially as a full-time resident working 80-hour weeks and pumping,” Dr. Hudson says.
She credits UCLA Health lactation consultants with helping her create a pumping and feeding schedule that kept her milk supply consistent even after going back to work.
“The lactation consultants were really the superstars I needed to tell me, ‘You can do it,’” Dr. Hudson says. “I think that’s the reason why I’m still breastfeeding today.”
Benefits of breastfeeding
Breastfeeding benefits both parent and baby by supporting their health and their bond. Breastfeeding is also free and available for nearly all new parents, which can’t be said of infant formula after the national shortage in the spring of 2022.
Other benefits of breastfeeding for baby include:
- Providing ideal nutrients for baby’s growth and development
- Digesting easily in baby’s belly
- Reducing the chance of illness and infections
- Protecting baby against obesity, diarrhea and respiratory illness
- Preventing development of allergies
- Decreasing risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
Breastfeeding also benefits the birthing parent by:
- Releasing hormones into the parent’s body that promote relaxation
- Preventing excessive bleeding
- Lowering the risk of breast cancer
- Reducing medical bills and sick time away from work
What makes breastfeeding so hard?
Breastfeeding is a brand-new skill for first-time parents, who are often exhausted after the birthing process, Thomas says.
She recommends families seek help early and meet with a lactation consultant before the baby arrives. She jokes, however, that teaching breastfeeding during pregnancy is like teaching swimming without going in a pool.
Still, classes and instruction can help parents prepare. UCLA Health offers breastfeeding classes that include “videos of what good breastfeeding looks like and what a good latch looks like,” Thomas says, and helps parents know what signs to watch and listen for.
“The program was very helpful,” says Marie Flores, MD, a physician in Pico Rivera. “I did the classes with my husband during my pregnancy, and this taught us a lot about what to expect. At one of my appointments before birth, they taught me how to start hand expression of milk before the baby was born, and I feel like that really helped for my milk to come in quickly within a couple of days after my baby was born.”
Lactation consultants can personally teach families how best to hold their baby during feeding, how to position the breast for baby’s best latch, what the sensation of milk flowing feels like and indicators that the infant is feeding well.
The first three days of the infant’s life are “probably the trickiest” for new parents, Thomas says. Babies, on the other hand, are “primed to learn.”
A common challenge new parents face in the early days of their child’s life is pain during breastfeeding, Thomas says.
“Many babies are able to latch comfortably but many (parents) are going to experience transitional soreness,” she says. “Just like the process of being pregnant is a transition for our bodies, we should expect that there is some transition with breastfeeding, but we don’t want pain that is excessive.”
Staff lactation consultants at UCLA Health can help address what may be causing the pain, she says: “A lactation consultant is a skilled professional who can help get a better, deeper latch and provide intervention when things don’t go well.”
Dr. Hudson says she realized through her own breastfeeding challenges that specifically teaching expectant parents how to breastfeed wasn’t part of her medical training.
“Being a new mom, I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “And me being an OB-GYN, I’m around this all the time. It kind of changed the way I practice. I thought, ‘I should know how to counsel my patients on this, because this is very hard.’”
New parents often worry about their milk supply and whether their baby is getting enough nutrition, Dr. Hudson says.
“In the beginning, you’re not making very much milk because your body is still transitioning with the hormones from pregnancy to postpartum,” she says.
The first form of milk new parents make is colostrum, a nutrient-dense milk that helps build the baby’s immune system.
“The baby doesn’t need very much — a couple milliliters when the baby is first born,” Dr. Hudson says. “Many people say, ‘I’m not making any milk. It’s not working.” But it’s more of an education that tells them it takes a while for your body to make milk, and whatever you’re feeding now is all that the baby needs.”
Lactation consultants also work with pediatricians to ensure that newborns are gaining enough weight, she says.
Breastfeeding, equity and inclusion
Parents of color report many barriers to successful breastfeeding. A national review study found that African Americans have the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation at birth and continuation at 6 months compared to other ethnic groups in the United States.
Health care systems may be part of the problem because of insufficient resources and lack of staff education, according to BreastfeedLA, a countywide initiative dedicated to reducing infant feeding inequities in Los Angeles.
Through the support of UCLA pediatric faculty and a UCLA Health Equity Innovation Grant, Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital recently launched a Community Lactation Clinic, which offers free breastfeeding services, both virtually and in-person — with no insurance or doctor referrals required.
The clinic provides comprehensive resources, including breast pump support and help with breastfeeding challenges, such as latching issues and milk supply concerns. Nutrition counseling for new parents, family support groups and support with low-weight or premature babies is also available. Support is available in English and Spanish.
UCLA Health also remains committed to providing compassionate, equitable and inclusive care to lesbian, gay, trans and gender-diverse patients, who are encouraged to share their preferred pronouns and terms for infant feeding, such as chestfeeding. Initiatives to improve breastfeeding equity include improving early access to breast pumps for families with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit and disseminating racially and ethnically relevant community lactation and general postpartum resources.
UCLA Health is also working with the community organization Cherished Futures for Black Moms & Babies. During this two-year collaborative, community advisors will work closely with UCLA Health leaders to advance birth equity and improve outcomes for Black parents and newborns.
“We hold to these core values and practices, despite the ever-changing winds of public discourse,” health system officials say.
Breastfeeding support for all
As a physician and as a new mom, Dr. Hudson wants all expectant and new parents to know that various forms of breastfeeding support are available at UCLA Health.
Since 2017, UCLA Health has offered expanded lactation support to include in-hospital consultations and outpatient lactation support. Patients receiving prenatal care at UCLA Health can meet with a lactation consultant during pregnancy for tailored assessment and support.
The Affordable Care Act covers lactation support and supplies, such as breast pumps. Patients can get hands-on help in the hospital. Following discharge, parents can set up appointments to see a lactation consultant at the UCLA Health Outpatient Lactation clinic.
The goal at UCLA Health is to support parents with whatever breastfeeding goals they have, Thomas says. Families with a variety of breastfeeding objectives are also supported, whether they plan to supplement with formula, have short-term goals, or intend to exclusively pump milk rather than directly breastfeed.
The most important thing is to ask for help, Dr. Hudson says.
“There are a lot of support people who are very qualified to help you,” she says. “People should not feel ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help, because that’s why they’re there. They’re non-judgmental, they’re excellent and they will help you get to your breastfeeding goals.”
Learn more about Breastfeeding Support at UCLA Health.