What To Expect When You’re: Breastfeeding

I grew up knowing that my mother breastfed all three of us. It wasn’t that she talked about it a lot – actually, looking back- I’m not sure how I knew this fact but I did know that she was proud of it. Again, she never actually said she was proud of it per se, but I just knew that she was.

This is where my breastfeeding journey started. I think growing up around women who breastfed greatly influences your decision (and dedication) to breastfeeding. I always knew I wanted to breastfeed even at a really young age because of my mother. Hearing the pride in her voice when she talked about it made me feel proud that I was breastfed. And it IS something to be proud of. But during my pregnancy when I was asked if I was going to breastfeed (if only our ancestors knew this was an actual common question!) I would reply with “I’m going to try” or “If I can” because I, like many newly pregnant women today was led to believe that breastfeeding was this really difficult, impossible thing that only a few women were capable of. And it’s just simply not true.
We are all aware of the benefits of breastfeeding and have heard the phrase “breast is best” enough that I will not go into the details of WHY you should breastfeed in this particular post but if you are interested, please do some research and you will be astounded by the staggering amount of benefits it poses for both mom and baby.
In my experience and from what I’ve gathered through researching in majority of cases you need four things to be successful at breastfeeding – and none of them are physical (and for the purpose of this post, I mean successfully feeding from the breast):

Perseverance
Dedication
Confidence
and Support
I took the breastfeeding class offered by the nearby hospital and they showed a few videos and explained how the baby took the milk from the breast, breast anatomy, and how to use a breast pump- but I didn’t walk away with a real working knowledge of any sort. I learned through experience, trial-and-error, researching, posting on forums, and talking with lactation consultants and other breastfeeding mothers. In my opinion, many more women would be successful at breastfeeding if they knew and understood the expectations before hand.

This is what they don’t tell you:
In the beginning  (I emphasize beginning- because after you get through the initial couple of weeks (or in my case seven) breastfeeding is not only easy, but enjoyable and will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life).. okay sorry, back to the “bad” things about breastfeeding. 

Oi Vey! The Pain!

Breastfeeding is undoubtedly painful (remember: in the beginning!). You are engorged most of the time (think of your breasts as a balloon filled to the brim and about to pop) and your nipples are beyond sore. I have heard many women say their nipples were “too flat” to breastfeed. Your nipples up until this point in your life are unblemished, “virginal” in a sense. Unless you have used tanning beds (or are European)- they probably have never even seen the sun! Now they are going to be beaten up, drawn out, and “gnawed” until they are cracked and bleeding (You get the picture).  I don’t know any woman who was born with nipples that look like a bottle top, your nipples are “toughened” over time and drawn out by the baby’s continued nursing. And this process coupled with a poor latch (I will go into this more) causes pain. We have all heard of  “national geographic” breasts- and it is always spoken about in a derogatory way. But the women pictured with gigantic protruding nipples have probably nursed a couple babies in their lifetime (and probably not all their own!) and until you are a breastfeeding mother yourself, you will not appreciate their beauty. I look at my breasts  now and never think “Ugh, my body will never be the same” … I am proud that my breasts look like the breasts of a woman who has nursed a baby. That my body has served a selfless purpose and will forever be changed by it; now branded with a “mark of motherhood”. When you get out of the shower and the soft towel touching your tender, beaten-up nipples feels like razor blades or you awake in the middle of the night with full, throbbing breasts, remember that this too shall pass. And I promise, it will.  

Shell-Shocking Demand

Breastfeeding is demanding. This was a big one for me: no one warned me how time consuming it was going to be! Yes, I heard what everyone hears: a baby eats every 2-3 hours. Pfft. Not a breastfed newborn. They eat every 2-3 hours but they take an hour or longer to eat! So it’s really more like every hour… and that’s if they aren’t cluster feeding. Ahhh cluster feeding… I do not miss you. Cluster feeding is a term used to describe when a baby nurses for hours on end.No exaggeration here: HOURS on end. This is when new mothers start to doubt themselves. They start to wonder why their baby is still hungry after nursing for so long, they start to worry that they’re not producing enough milk for their baby or that they are doing something wrong. And then on top of that, your baby may lose slightly more weight than your pediatrician would have liked after birth (which is most likely normal and fine) but this causes women to doubt themselves even more! and automatically want to switch to formula. Do not doubt yourself- be patient with your body, and your baby. I am guilty of all of those thoughts- because no one ever told me this was all normal. That I wouldn’t be able to leave the couch for 8 hours at a time some nights because I was going to have a baby attached to my chest. Cluster feeding is natural and necessary. It is your baby following the natural process to tell your body “Your baby survived childbirth and now it needs to be fed” as well as making sure a baby who has the stomach the size of a marble receives the calories they need. Many women make the mistake of not “giving in” to these cluster feeding sessions, either because nearby people give them bad advice, for example: “The baby just wants to suck- he’s just using you as a pacifier” (I’ve heard this one a lot – what do pacifiers imitate?- um hello, the human nipple!) or they are completely unaware of this natural process and start to think they just simply aren’t producing enough milk to satisfy their baby’s hunger. If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that these cluster feeding sessions are crucial in the beginning, to build and establish a milk supply and to comfort and nourish a rapidly growing baby. 

You DO Have Enough Milk!

I’ve heard this from a couple of different women…”He would drain both breasts and still be hungry so I had  to supplement with formula”. Milk production is a supply and demand relationship. If you supplement with formula, you are simply telling your body you don’t need to make milk for that particular feeding. Then your milk supply will be less than your baby needs, and you will have to continue to supplement… and a viscous cycle is started. This is where confidence is key. Very few women physicallycannot produce enough milk (about 1 in 1000) to feed their babies. The human body is a perfectly designed, very efficient system. We are designed to procreate successfully- therefore, have enough milk. Low milk supply is commonly caused by these types of misconceptions (and in rare cases other reasons. Click here to read more).  Be confident in your body’s ability and follow your instincts – nurse and nurse and nurse some more. Learn your baby’s hunger cues and follow them- even if the baby has been nursing for 4 hours straight already, even if you are sleep-deprived and tired and desperately need a break, even if you have visitors and are uncomfortable nursing in front of them; even if the baby is only nursing for comfort, or if your neighbor is telling you – you are “nursing too much” (which is impossible by the way): nurse. Your baby will only be this dependent on you for a short amount of time (a matter of weeks in the span of their entire life). Invest in some TV series to binge watch, stock up on snacks you like, prop yourself up with pillows and get comfortable, and have your partner be your personal assistant (this is how they can be involved!) while you nurse during these cluster feeding sessions. As your baby grows and becomes more efficient at nursing, the constant nursing will end. 

In the midst of a cluster feeding frenzy!

Practice Makes Perfect

Breastfeeding takes practice. Breastfeeding is a natural process, yes. One of the most natural processes that we will ever experience in our lifetime. But it still takes work. In our culture, breastfeeding has become a taboo subject the last few generations. Mothers have been made to feel that they have to nurse their babies in private or have been discouraged from breastfeeding altogether. So we do not grow up around seeing breastfeeding mothers like other cultures do. We are brought up thinking bottles are the norm; most toy baby dolls come with bottles, it is the token “baby shower” symbol, and so on. Which has been a great disservice to new mothers in my opinion. We start out with minimal knowledge on the process and are kind of thrown into a sink or swim predicament. A baby is born with the natural drive to suck, however they are not born knowing how to properly latch on to the nipple and drain milk from the breast efficiently. There is a learning curve for both mom and baby.  You have to teach them how to get on the nipple. Literally have to put your breast in their mouth because they just aren’t coordinated enough yet- and once you think they are on the nipple properly- they will let go, and you’ll have to do it all over again except this time they are hungry and angry and crying. It is tedious and frustrating to say the least. I have heard from more women than I can count say this “My baby never latched“. I do not judge these women, and I do not want to sound self-righteous, but I think these women are victims of common misconceptions about breastfeeding. A newborn’s mouth is very small, and I think a lot of latch issues take one thing: time. Minimal outside interference such as bottles and pacifiers in the beginning (the way a baby drinks milk out of a bottle is no where near the mechanism that they use to drain milk from a breast and can work against the cause) can also help speed up the process. And not a tremendous amount of time, we’re talking about a matter of weeks (usually). As a baby grows (rapidly during the first few months) so does their mouth and their ability to better latch onto the breast. And there are things that can help in the beginning, like a nipple shield (a silicone piece placed onto the nipple that allows the baby to latch easier). This is where things occur that give breastfeeding the reputation of being “difficult”. A poor latch will cause painful nursing and sore nipples (imagine your nipple like the end of a straw getting pinched over and over). A poor latch coupled with a body trying to figure out how much milk to produce can also cause engorgement  which is painful and uncomfortable. Engorgement can lead to plugged ducts and mastitis (a breast infection- I speak from experience- not fun). This is where perseverance comes into play. Trust me when I say, in most cases-  all that is needed to overcome these obstacles is time. With perseverance and dedication- most common breastfeeding issues will resolve on their own as your baby grows, your body adjusts, and you both gain experience and confidence.. Remember before formula (which is a fairly new option in the scheme of things- and how fumbling with powders and bottle warmers in the middle of night is considered easier than simply snuggling your baby to your breast- I will never understand), there was no other choice (besides a wet nurse) and we were forced to work through and persevere- and that’s what we do for our children, we sacrifice. 

It Takes a Village to Breastfeed

Breastfeeding requires support. As I have mentioned above, the early weeks are no walk in the park. Now imagine trying to cope with all of the above items, after being somewhat shell-shocked by labor, pulling more all-nighters in one week than you did all of college, still recovering physically from childbirth, dealing with a roller coaster of hormones,  and having to entertain all of the family and friends coming to visit your new baby. Oh and yeah: having a new baby to take care of. If someone is chirping in your ear “Just give formula” or ruffling your confidence by innocent comments- you are going to start to doubt what you are doing. Women have helped women learn to breastfeed in the for generations. Whether it be their mothers, grandmothers, aunts… peer to peer support has occurred probably since the beginning of our time. Try to surround yourself with women who support breastfeeding, talk to friends that you know who are seasoned nursing mothers, make sure your spouse is on board because you are going to need them, educate yourself through resources online (kellymom.com  is a great resource), or when in doubt- call a local lactation consultant for a home visit (I did this twice). Sometimes all you need is reassurance from someone you trust on the subject.

I do not want to devalue the struggles of breastfeeding. There are very real obstacles that can occur, and if you are feeling like there are larger issues than you can handle on your own- seek help. Lactation consultants (LC’s) are women who feel very passionately about the breastfeeding cause, who have dedicated a tremendous amount of time to become licensed (You’d be surprised how much effort it takes to become a licensed LC). You can find a local lactation consultant through the La Leche League, a whole organization dedicated to breastfeeding support.

Despite overcoming latch issues, a lip-tie, sore and cracked nipples for weeks on end, engorgement, a forceful letdown, mastitis, and a cows milk protein intolerance- I was still one of those mothers who fell in love with nursing once I reached the light at the end of the tunnel- and oh boy is there light. I love the bond, I love the benefits, I love that my daughter only needs one thing in this world; me. I love the primal naturalism of it all: that it is what nature intended. The ethereal motherhood feeling I have when her little hand holds my hand; that it is something intimate and special only shared between me and my daughter. To me it is one of the most beautiful and rewarding things I have done in my life up until this point. It has given me a new sense of confidence and pride. I have done something that is greater than myself: My child has thrived from the nourishment of not only my body, but in a sense – my soul.

 

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