Is Breastfeeding Natural or Learned?

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Is breastfeeding something that should happen easily and naturally or is it something that you and your baby have to learn? Well, sometimes it's a little of both. Breastfeeding is certainly natural. Women have been breastfeeding for as long as they have been having babies. A woman's body automatically prepares to nurse her child during pregnancy, and a newborn can instinctively turn toward the breast, open his mouth, and begin nursing.

 Before the mid-1900s when breast milk alternatives and infant formula became available, breastfeeding was necessary for survival.

For some mothers, breastfeeding does come very easily. Immediately after birth, some newborns are able to find the breast, latch on, and breastfeed without any assistance. However, it doesn't always work out that way. There are many things that can interfere with the natural process of breastfeeding.

What Interferes With the Natural Process Of Breastfeeding

  • The Type of Labor and Delivery: C-sections, epidurals, the induction of labor, and narcotic medications given during labor can all affect breastfeeding. Surgery can postpone the start of breastfeeding and delay the onset of milk production. Medications given during childbirth can cause the baby to be sleepy, and they can suppress the natural reflexes that allow a child to find the breast and begin nursing. With a natural, unmedicated birth, the baby is more likely to be alert and ready to nurse in the hour after delivery.
  • Lack of Generational Help: For centuries, the women of a family: grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and aunts, would assist a new mother with breastfeeding. They would pass down their knowledge and experiences to the next generation. However, there was a shift away from breastfeeding during the time that our grandmothers and mothers were having their children. Since many of them did not breastfeed, they are not able to pass that knowledge down to us, the younger generation. Plus, families do not live as close together as they once did. Many new moms do not have their mothers and sisters living nearby. Breastfeeding support and assistance is so important. If your family is not available, ask for help from your friends who have breastfed, or join a breastfeeding support group in your area.
  • Babies Born With Health Issues: A premature baby or a child born with physical or neurological problems may not have the ability to breastfeed right away. If breastfeeding is a possibility, it may take some time and special help to get it started.
  • Personal Issues: Fear, lack of confidence, modesty, embarrassment, and body image issues can make breastfeeding feel uncomfortable and unnatural. You may need more privacy at first, or you may just need extra help and some reassurance that your baby is breastfeeding well and getting enough breast milk.

Learning to Breastfeed

When breastfeeding doesn't happen naturally and easily right from the start, you don't have to give up. Just because breastfeeding is a natural process of the human body, it doesn't mean that every mother and baby will automatically know what to do. Thankfully, breastfeeding is also a skill that can be learned. With a little help and some patience, many of the early breastfeeding hurdles can be overcome. Just like any skill, the more you know about it and the longer you stick with it, the easier it will be. It could take days or even weeks to get to the point where you feel comfortable and confident about breastfeeding, and that's OK.

Give yourself and your baby the time that you need, and don't be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. There are doctors, nurses, lactation professionals, doulas, breastfeeding support groups, family members, and friends that you can reach out to for support.


American Academy of Pediatrics. New Mother’s Guide To Breastfeeding. Bantam Books. New York. 2011.

Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Seventh Edition.  Mosby. 2011.