The optimal time to begin breast-feeding is immediately after birth. If the infant is healthy at birth, with a good heart rate, respiratory rate, tone color and cry, then there is no reason to wait. Many infants will have an alert period for one to two hours after birth, and then fall asleep for several hours after that. With early initiation of breast-feeding, the stimulation of the mother to produce milk can occur and the infant can get the benefits of receiving Colostrum, which is filled with antibodies for immunity.
Neonatal nurses and lactation specialists are readily available during the hospital stay to help observe the technique of the mother/infant pair and to instruct the mother about the best positions and techniques. They can also help with any problems that are occurring. This is a great resource. Many hospitals are becoming more responsive to the needs of breast-feeding mothers. But, unfortunately, many are still behind the times. In some hospitals, the nurses will push supplementing with water, glucose-water, or formula. Many hospitals will keep babies in the nursery for a "transition" period for hours and hours. None of this is necessary. It is not necessary to supplement when breast-feeding. As a matter of fact, supplementing can cause problems for the infant with nipple confusion from bottle to breast, and subsequently the baby can have difficulty with breast-feeding. With early discharge from the hospital these days, a mother and infant may go home before the milk comes in at three to five days after birth. This can lead to a lot of frustration as family members may start pushing supplementation because they think the baby is starving. Many mothers that give up on breast-feeding do so during this most difficult time period. Because of this, and also to check the baby's health, a follow-up visit is necessary within two to four days after discharge from the hospital. The baby can be checked and concerns about breast-feeding can be discussed.
Remember, if babies were supposed to eat in the first few days after birth, then milk would come in in the first few days after birth. Babies are born with extra fluid in their bodies that they need to lose after birth. That's why they are so puffy at birth, and why they lose up to 10% of their birth weight in the first three to five days. If feeding is going well, then they will be back to birth weight at two weeks of age. Formula is available at birth, so the temptation is to start using it. If you can resist this temptation, the breast-feeding will go much better.