Congratulations on your decision to breastfeed your new baby. Some women decide to breastfeed early on in their pregnancies, and some make the decision many months later. Either way, you have made the amazing choice to feed your child the way that nature has intended. This is not a slam against mothers who choose to (or have to) formula-feed their babies. We are all doing the best we can in the choices we make for our children.
That said, in the first several days of your baby's life, all that you've read will be put to the test in reality. Things don't always go according to plan, even when nature dictates. There is definitely a learning curve to breastfeeding.
After you've been settled into your room on the Maternity floor in the hospital, a kind nurse will bring your newborn to you because he or she is hungry. Really, your baby is not hungry, not in the traditional sense at least. What baby needs is to be held, optimally to your breast. The nurse will encourage you to put your breast to baby's suckling mouth, and so you do just that. Baby becomes content, relaxed even. You then find yourself relaxing as well. You're giving your baby what he or she wants, so everyone is just a little less tense in these first few days of learning.
A breastfeeding mom's first gift to her baby is not actual milk. It's something called colostrum, and it's some pretty amazing stuff. Colostrum is the pre-milk that a mother's breasts start producing during pregnancy. Most of us aren't even aware that it's there, although sometimes a little bit can leak out toward the end of pregnancy. This pre-milk is very easy to digest and is full of antibodies that help to protect newborns from various bacteria and viruses, and it's chocked full of nutritients to boot. So nurse your baby as often as you can in the first few days of life, which will likely end up being at least every two hours. Not only will you be giving baby a natural vaccination against many common illnesses, you will be stimulating your body to produce a plentiful supply of milk. And that is how the breastfeeding cycle works - by supply and demand. The more often you nurse, the more milk your body will produce.
There will likely be minor issues along the way, one of the first and most prevalent being extremely sore and possibly bleeding nipples. As a new mom, you may find this alarming, not to mention quite painful. Rest assured, the pain will resolve itself once your nipples have "toughened up" after numerous feedings. During this time, try to take advantage of the around-the-clock nurses at your disposal in the hospital. They have seen a lot and can be an invaluable source of information in these early days.
Next in line in the breastfeeding learning curve is to make sure that you are always alternating breasts at each feeding. Very important. If you end with the left breast at the last feeding, be sure to begin the next feeding with the left breast. This ensures that each breast is being emptied as much as possible, which will keep up your milk production and minimize the risk of engorgement or plugged milk ducts. As a sleep-deprived mom, if you have trouble recalling which side to start the next feeding from, a well-placed safety pin will serve as a great reminder.