Shortly after Meigan Alexander gave birth to her son, she was handed her bundle of joy for her to keep warm with her body heat. Her son stayed nestled in her arms for the next couple of hours.

“Skin-to-skin promotes maternal bonding and secrets a hormone called oxytocin, or ’the love hormone,’” said Laura Corsig, lead lactation consultant for Novant Health’s greater Charlotte market. “We know that babies are born with nine specific reflexes that help them to breastfeed, and if we place the naked newborn on the mother’s bare chest immediately following birth, then those nine reflexes are awakened and the baby will breastfeed better.”

Alexander embraced the opportunity to bond with her newborn, Kedar, soon after her delivery. A breastfeeding advocate, she knew she wanted to breastfeed her son for the known health benefits.

Research shows that breastfed babies reap medical benefits, including lower risk of a wealth of chronic and acute conditions such as asthma, childhood leukemia, childhood obesity, ear infections and eczema (atopic dermatitis). It also helps lower infants’ risk for lower respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), type 2 diabetes and necrotizing enterocolitis, a disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract in pre-term infants.

Since 1990, breastfeeding rates in the U.S. have been rising steadily, as about 81 percent of mothers have started out breastfeeding according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2016 Breastfeeding Report Card .

“One of the most highly effective preventive measures a mother can take to protect the health of her infant is to breastfeed,” Corsig said. “Many of the health benefits that babies get from breastfeeding early in life can carry on through adulthood as well.” Breastfeeding is linked to a lower risk of certain types of breast cancer and ovarian cancer in mothers.

Novant Health Matthews Medical Center, Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center and Thomasville Medical Center have all earned the “baby-friendly” designation. The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative is a global program of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The initiative recognizes birthing facilities that successfully implement  10 steps to receive the baby-friendly designation  and the  International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes . To date, more than 427 U.S. facilities have been designated baby-friendly, including four Novant Health hospitals in North Carolina.

The primary practices of baby-friendly hospitals include encouraging skin-to-skin contact between mothers and newborns immediately after birth, and keeping babies in their mothers’ room during their stay in the hospital. Both encourage bonding and improve the newborn’s ability to breastfeed. Studies also show that immediate skin-to-skin contact help newborns to maintain their temperatures, normalize their heart rate and reduce their likeliness of crying.

Alexander said rooming in with her newborn son allowed her to breastfeed on demand.  “Having your baby in the room with you makes all the difference.  I had more time to bond with my son and breastfeed when he needed to, rather than having to call a nurse to bring him to my room,” she said.

As a baby-friendly hospital, the maternity center at Novant Health Matthews Medical Center is staffed with lactation consultants who assist mothers in gaining the skills and confidence they need to breastfeed when their baby arrives.

“Breastfeeding is natural, but it’s not easy,” Corsig said. “Childbirth is natural, but no one equates it to easy. It’s not something you’d do in private on your own without any help, and breastfeeding should be no different.” She noted that women who can’t breastfeed often blame themselves, but should remember that breastfeeding struggles are perfectly normal.

The American Association of Pediatrics  recommends  that moms breastfeed exclusively until babies are six months old and continue until at least their first birthday.

“Breastfeeding is a relationship, and it’s hard work,” Alexander said. “There were days I would just cry, but I knew I could get through it. My mom and I had already had wonderful conversations about breastfeeding, so I felt comfortable in working through the issues.” 

Childbirth is unpredictable — but thinking through your preferences ahead of time can make you feel more confident the day of. Download our birth preparation guide.