Breastfeeding can be a maze of health, societal and emotional factors that can make it a very significant experience for new mums.
We've put together a guide to help you navigate this sometimes tricky territory, and to give you some information so you know where to look for more help or advice.
How breastfeeding works
The NHS recommends breastfeeding your baby exclusively for their first six months. After that, you can combine your milk with the same foods you're eating.
Most mothers have stopped breastfeeding their babies when they've reached two years old, although when to stop is entirely dependent on what's working best for you both.
One major point to note is that breastfeeding isn't something you and your baby will always instantly master, and you'll have both good and bad days.
Putting pressure on yourself to get it right first time and every time can make you feel bad about breastfeeding. This can take away from the bonding time you could be having with your baby.
Go easy on yourself and always ask for help if you need it.
Is breastfeeding good for me and my baby?
Breastfeeding is generally thought to have long-lasting health benefits for your baby.
It can help to protect them from diseases and infections, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease – in some cases right into adulthood.
It also has health benefits for you, reducing your risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers and osteoporosis.
Does breastfeeding hurt?
Breastfeeding shouldn't hurt when done correctly, but it can cause pain if something is wrong.
The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to alleviate discomfort.
Most issues are caused by uncomfortable placement and positioning, so it's worth experimenting to find the best one or seeking advice from an expert.
The letdown reflex (when your breasts fill up with milk) can be an unpleasant sensation at first, but the ache often settles down within a few months.
Similarly, your breasts can become engorged if you're overproducing milk or haven't been able to pump or feed your baby in a while. Settling into a regular schedule is the best way of ensuring this doesn't happen too often.
There are also some conditions associated with breastfeeding that require a GP visit. Thrush can be passed between your baby and your nipples and if it enters your milk ducts, it can cause a lot of pain after you've finished breastfeeding.
Mastitis is an inflammation of your breast tissue, leading to discomfort along with fever symptoms. Check your symptoms of mastitis here and see a doctor if you're concerned.
Nipple pain is a common complaint among breastfeeding mums. Your baby's enthusiasm for eating can result in sore, cracked or even bleeding nipples.
Have a look at our guide to soothing sore nipples for some easy household treatments like Vaseline, Manuka honey or salt water baths. You can also buy specialist creams like this Lansinoh Lanolin Cream (£7.33, amazon.co.uk).
What can I eat and drink while breastfeeding?
When you're breastfeeding, taking care of your health is vital for both you and your baby.
Breastfeeding can make you hungrier and more tired than normal, so try to address this with a healthy, balanced diet including plenty of fruit and vegetables, protein, fibre, dairy and fluids.
If you're stuck for inspiration, read our list of drinks and snacks to help you keep your energy up while breastfeeding.
Skimmed milk and water are the best options for keeping hydrated.
Caffeine is not recommended for breastfeeding mums above limits of around 300mg a day, as it can reach your baby through your milk and keep him or her awake. Alcohol in small amounts of one or two units a week is generally fine.
Can I take medication while breastfeeding?
Cold and flu medications aren't recommended for breastfeeding mums because they can make their way to your baby through your milk.
With any new medication, you should always seek guidance from your GP and let them know you're breastfeeding before you take anything.
Do breastfeeding babies need water?
Because breast milk is 88% water, babies don't need any water while breastfeeding, although they may need more breast milk in hot weather.
Do breastfeeding babies need to be burped?
Babies who are breastfed don't need to be burped as often as bottle-fed babies, because they swallow less air when they're feeding.
Do breastfeeding babies get colic?
It's a myth that breastfeeding prevents colic, as colic is no more or less common in breastfed babies than babies who don't breastfeed.
Will breastfeeding change my breasts?
The flow of milk into your breasts during breastfeeding can lead to a slight stretching that might cause your breasts to look and feel different.
Other than that, it's impossible to say how your breasts might change in appearance after breastfeeding because everyone's experience is different.
Any changes to the appearance of your breasts are far more likely to be caused by pregnancy itself than by breastfeeding.
Can I get pregnant while breastfeeding?
While breastfeeding can reduce your chances of getting pregnant by changing your hormone levels and delaying ovulation, it isn't a fail-safe method of contraception.
It's best to take other precautions if you're not looking to become pregnant again right away.
Does breastfeeding have any side effects?
The hormones released during breastfeeding can have all kinds of side effects, which differ from woman to woman, including drowsiness, acne, headaches, nausea, weight loss and heightened emotions both good and bad.
It's important to recognise that if you don't feel uplifted by breastfeeding, this is probably the result of an entirely natural release of hormones which helps let down the milk and is nothing to do with your abilities as a mother. If you're concerned about your mood during breastfeeding, you should always see your doctor.
Taking vitamins can help with both the physical and emotional stress that breastfeeding can put on your body. There are essential breastfeeding vitamins that contain everything you need to stay as healthy as possible during your breastfeeding months, like these Pregnacare supplements (£10.45, amazon.co.uk).
Can I breastfeed in public?
Breastfeeding in public may feel strange at first, but it's both legal and also socially acceptable to the vast majority of people, so you should never be made to feel ashamed of doing it.
Practicality is key, so make sure you wear a suitable bra and top to be able to feed easily and comfortably. You can buy a special breastfeeding cover or shawl like this one from Loving Mum (£13.97, amazon.co.uk) if you feel more relaxed being covered when you feed.
Bring someone with you if you feel strange feeding your baby in public on your own. It will become easier the more you do it.
What breastfeeding supplies do I need?
If you already know you're going to try breastfeeding, getting the right kit in advance can make your life much easier.
There are many things you can buy to help with breastfeeding, and it's likely you'll consider them essentials once you've used them for a while.
The first is a breast pump. This is invaluable whenever you don't have your baby with you, because you'll need to remove all that milk somehow for your own comfort. Try this Tommee Tippee Closer to Nature Breastfeeding Kit (£29.99, amazon.co.uk), which contains a manual pump, bottles, breast pads and storage lids.
Breast pads are another accessory that most breastfeeding mums count as an essential. They soak up nipple leaks – helping to avoid embarrassing situations – and also help prevent chapped and sore nipples. Our favourites are these Medela Disposable Nursing Pads (£5.99 for 30, amazon.co.uk).
How and when should I wean off breastfeeding?
As with so much of breastfeeding guidance, weaning is a personal process and can change according to your or your baby's needs.
Around six months is a good time for your baby to start trying solid foods. However, it's important to do this only when they've had a little milk. It's a trying process for them, and doing it when they're extremely hungry is likely to lead to frustration for both of you.
Weaning is usually done by dropping one feed a day from your baby's normal routine. You might want to start by thinking about which feed your baby enjoys most, and making sure you keep that feed in your routine, dropping a different one in favour of trying some solids.
You may need to express milk for your own comfort to compensate for the reduction in feeds. Keep an eye on your own health at the same time as looking after your baby's.
Many mothers find that they can let their baby guide the process from here on in, adopting a "don't offer, don't refuse" approach. This allows their baby to ask for milk at any time, but with the baby (rather than the mother) guiding the feeds.
Some mothers find that they wish they had carried on breastfeeding for longer than they did, so when you do decide to try weaning your baby make sure it's for you and your child, and not because you feel any pressure to stick to someone else's timetable.
Breastfeeding help and support
Breastfeeding your baby should be an enjoyable, bonding experience for both of you. If you're having difficulties at any time, you don't need to suffer in silence.
There are plenty of new mums out there who have had the same issues you may be experiencing, and there's also an abundance of help, so speak to your GP if you think something is going wrong and you will be completely supported.
Breastfeeding groups and classes are also widely available, and can be an excellent social outlet for new mums as well as a helpful support network for breastfeeding issues.
In addition to this overview, we've created a step-by-step guide to breastfeeding, shared breastfeeding tips and addressed some common breastfeeding problems to help give you the best start on your breastfeeding journey.