My daydreams about breastfeeding were all so very lovely. In some, I was lying in bed beneath cool, freshly laundered sheets, with my arms wrapped around a warm, snugly bundle, a smile on my face as I relished in the natural act of nourishing my baby from my own body. In others, I was sitting on the couch, wearing my new soft-yet-fashionable nursing tank and chatting casually with my sister, as a happy newborn with a belly full of breast milk slept across my lap.
I’m sure you’ve had a few daydreams of your own. You’ve seen the Instagram photos and Pinterest boards dedicated to the beauty of breastfeeding. You look forward to breastfeeding as a bonding experience with your new baby and the memories you’ll cherish well after your little one has grown into a free-wheeling toddler full of personality and promise.
But what if things don’t go as planned?
I suspected early on that there was a disconnect between my perceived “natural ease” of breastfeeding and the very real challenges that awaited.
I yearned for stories from the trenches, shared by real moms, who could guide me through some of the pitfalls you don’t necessarily hear about in the breastfeeding courses offered by the hospital. Here are 10 things I learned in those early weeks and months that you may find helpful as well.
1. Latch is key!
HOW COULD IT BE TIME TO NURSE AGAIN ALREADY? I remember thinking when my son would start making those unmistakable rooting sounds from wherever he was sleeping. DIDN’T WE JUST ENDURE THIS AN HOUR AGO? In my eagerness to feed him as a newly minted mother, I had allowed any form of latching in those first few days. My nipples paid the price with cracks and sore spots, and I had started to dread nursing. Thankfully, I found help from the lactation consultant in a local baby boutique. She patiently taught me the secrets of a great latch and helped me realize that nursing doesn’t have to be excruciatingly painful.
As La Leche League summarizes, you’ll know you have the right latch if your baby’s:
- Nose is nearly touching your breast
- Lips are flanged outward in a kissy face
- Mouth is positioned over the nipple, covering half an inch of the lower breast
You’ll see the baby’s jaw working all the way back to the ear. The temples will wiggle and you may hear a swallowing sound. Stabbing pain is NOT normal. Gently place your finger in the baby’s mouth to break the suction and try again. You’ll be tempted to just grin and bear it–anything to get a fussy baby eating–but trust me, you’ll both be happier if you insist upon proper form from the beginning.
2. Line up help early on.
Over and over again, we hear about how "natural" breastfeeding is. Even as prepared as I was I was still surprised to learn it wasn’t as simple I thought it would be. Babies are adaptable, but habits form easily, so lining up the right help from day one will help you build the confidence you need to weather high or low milk supply, fast or slow letdown, latching difficulty, tenderness, or clogged milk ducts.
At the hospital or birth center, ask the lactation consultant to help you latch whenever possible. If she isn’t available, most nurses in the postpartum area are trained in proper latch techniques, and they can watch your latch and give you pointers. Let your partner help; sometimes it takes more than two hands to position the baby, squeeze the nipple into the right shape, bring your baby to the breast firmly, and keep all pillows at the right level to be supportive! In the beginning, it takes lots of help, but you’ll soon be a pro at it.
Many women leave the hospital right before their milk has come in, which is when I really needed help getting a nice deep latch; my breast was like a basketball, and my son’s mouth kept slipping off my engorged breast. It is very important to know where you can get help after you have left the hospital. Your pediatrician, obstetrician, or hospital may have breastfeeding support groups for new moms. Some baby boutiques host events or breastfeeding support groups.
La Leche League can also put you in touch with experienced mom leaders who can help.
You can also seek the help of a lactation consultant; the cost may even be covered by your insurance. A Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) can come to your home, and help you position yourself for good latch whether in your rocking chair, on your sofa, or in your bed. She can also let you know if you should seek assistance from an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) who can identify tongue and lip ties or other issues.
General breastfeeding sites
- www.llli.org The international La Leche League website, a phenomenal resource for breastfeeding families.
- www.bfmed.org The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine is a worldwide organization of physicians dedicated to the promotion, protection, and support of breastfeeding and human lactation.
- www.kellymom.com Awesome site. Created by a lactation consultant and mother of three, this site provides evidence-based information on breastfeeding, sleep, and parenting. It also has a GREAT page on treating your cold/flu symptoms while breastfeeding.
- www.breastfeeding.com This site has a ton of resources including videos, forums, etc.
- www.drjacknewman.com One of the great advocates for breastfeeding, Dr. Jack Newman’s site has a plethora of breastfeeding including videos, articles and troubleshooting information. You can even send him an email from this site!
Habits form fast so it’s VITAL to get the latch right at the beginning. (Don’t despair if you didn’t, as babies are adaptable.) Lots of moms can struggle with too fast of letdown or engorgement, or overproduction of milk, which can be remedied pretty easily! Getting help will benefit you and your baby immensely if you start off on the right foot and can avoid problems like clogged milk ducts.
3. Experiment with different positions.
I applaud those amazing moms who can hold a twin to each breast in a football hold. They really don’t get enough props. On the other hand, my default was the most basic cross-cradle position. This is a great position for newborns in general because it offers the most head and neck support as they nurse.
Later, I discovered the beauty and joy of the side-lying position, which enabled me to breastfeed and rest in bed at the same time. It was so delightful, I wondered why I hadn’t tried it sooner!
The football hold is beneficial for issues like sore nipples or improper latching.
If you have a fast milk letdown, lying back with the baby on top of you, working against gravity, might help. If you’re having any kind of pain, alternating between different positions should feel better.
“Make sure YOU are comfortable first,” the Lactation Consultants told me. All too often, I caught myself hunching and wound up with an aching back and neck. They jammed pillows behind my back and under each arm like they were stuffing a scarecrow… but you know, it worked! What worked even better than all the pillows was My Breast Friend, a large attachable pillow that makes a platform around you for baby to lie on while nursing. I recommend working with a nurse or lactation consultant to learn the various positions out there.
4. Invest in some key equipment.
I thought I had it all: the muslin blankies, the Bum Genius diapers, the car seat, the musical swings, the storybooks, the Moby and Ergo carriers, wet bags, burp cloths, and bibs. But I forgot to shop for myself!
- Comfy nursing and sleep bras and a nursing nightgown. Even if you have a champion sleeper like I did, the quicker you can get your baby to your breast, the better, especially for those “tank-up” night feeds. A good, soft nursing nightgown lets you slip one breast out without choreography or delay.
- Nursing tank tops. While regular tank tops can be loose enough to allow access to the breast, a good nursing tank top can make everything easier, especially if you're nursing away from home.
- Washable nursing pads. I’ll admit. I caved in to the allure of 60 disposable nursing pads for $10. Two days later, I was ordering reusable one: soft bamboo on sore nipples is so much more appealing than something resembling a maxi pad for your breast!
- Lanolin. I used Lanolin before nursing sessions to prevent cracking. Though Medela is a little sticky at first, you can wipe your finger clean on a burp cloth without residual stickiness. The sample packets my hospital gave out were my favorite, so ask for extras if you’re lucky enough to be given some!. Warning: lanolin stains anything it touches! This includes your nursing bras/tops; so keep a breast pad over it which isn’t as expensive to replace! Some of my friends swear by coconut oil (it smells nice and doesn’t stain!).
- Hydrogel pads. I hoped my cracked nipples would be like a cut inside the mouth that miraculously healed in a day, but it was a week of torture and torment. These hydrogel pads were the missing link to a speedy recovery. Consider them a “Band-Aid for broken nipples.” I put mine in the fridge so they went on nice and cool. Ask your nurse in the hospital for extras of these too!
5. Mama needs to eat and drink, A LOT!
You may have eaten a lot while you were pregnant, but you don’t know the meaning of “bottomless pit” until that first month of breastfeeding! Consider this: you only need 250-300 extra calories to grow a baby, but you need 500 extra calories to make milk and feed your baby! Without fail when my sons started crying, I would get ravenously hungry. The moment he latched, mouth became the Sahara Desert!
Be prepared by keeping a water bottle and basket of snacks next to your usual nursing spot. Snacks like nuts, and granola bars, dried fruit, coconut strips and more. String cheese, yogurt, chocolate milk make great snacks too (but don’t leave them out in your basket!). Partners, family, and friends are always looking for ways to be helpful, so ask yours to keep you fed you while you feed the baby!
6. Create a peaceful place to breastfeed.
I bought two used glider chairs, put one in the living room, and kept one in the boy’s room. Think of the things you'll enjoy for 30-45 minutes: a book, magazine, your phone, music. Store those, and essentials like lanolin, burp cloths, and breast pads, within easy reach of your nursing spot.
If you have older children, you may want to keep small, soft books or quiet toys nearby for older siblings to play with.
7. Avoid nipple confusion.
Baby has a lot to learn – and it can be confusing to have mom’s nipples to figure out, as well as bottles, pacifiers, etc. While breastfeeding is still being established, lactation consultants recommend no artificial nipples. Once breastfeeding is well-established (usually somewhere in the 2-4 week range) if you would like to introduce a bottle or pacifier then go ahead.
When looking for what bottle to try, you may have to try several. My lactation consultant, in all seriousness, said, "go to the store, look at the wall of nipples available, and look under your shirt to see which one looks most like yours. That’s the one to buy!"
It may sound silly, but your baby will probably want what is the most similar to you. And you may have to try a half dozen to find one he will accept! But if yours don’t accept a bottle, don’t worry to exhaustion, neither of my boys would ever take a bottle, and I survived!
8. Accept help from people who care.
Many people will offer their assistance: your partner, friends, parents, in-laws, and neighbors. At first, you may not know HOW anyone can really help you, so here are a few suggestions:
- Let them bring you food! Who has time for cooking and cleaning when you’re feeding the baby every couple hours? Accept all offers of food from friends and family! It will be hard enough to even find time to warm it up. When you have a pregnant friend or family member, be sure to return the favor.
- Let them take older siblings to the park or museum. When baby #2 came along, my toddler took the change in schedule hardest of all. He had gotten accustomed to our daily outings and activities, and it was hard to be home as much as I wanted to be with the new baby. It was really helpful when grandparents came to play with him, and take him on short trips. I also had a couple very close mom friends who volunteered to take my older son to some favorite activities. Keeping his routine going made him feel happier and allowed me downtime with the new baby.
- Let them help you focus on breastfeeding. My husband was so helpful at fetching pillows, propping me into position, running for water or an “emergency” snack, or giving me another opinion about whether or not the baby was latched properly. He grabbed the baby and changed the diaper, while I got myself situated.
9. Expect challenges, but know that it gets better!
Breastfeeding isn’t a cakewalk for most moms (especially the first time), and some amount of discomfort is probably.
Engorgement can make it feel like someone replaced your soft tissue with bowling balls. One of the dangers of engorgement or with poor latching/cracked nipples is that you may develop painful clogged milk ducts or, worse, the dreaded Mastitis. All challenges are easier to deal with when you catch them right away and seek proper treatment.
For most moms, breastfeeding HURTS, at least a little, at first. Your nipples can be cracked and raw from the constant action, your breasts are full and sore.
Some amount of nipple tenderness the first six weeks is perfectly normal; there were times I literally wanted to scream from the stabbing pain of a latch. Even the water of the shower hurt. A soft shirt suddenly felt painful on my bare chest, and even when there wasn’t pain per se, I was painfully aware of my breasts and nipples. The nipple sensitivity finally went away by 4.5 months, and I have happily breastfed ever since.
Do what you can to minimize the stress and focus on the good – you’ll be glad you fought hard for breastfeeding. After all, most things in life that are worthwhile are sometimes difficult. But in the end, you’re glad you did them.
10. Breastfeed for as long as you and baby want to
Breastfeed anywhere, anytime! Sitting home alone or structuring your life around a breastfeeding schedule can feel like a chore. You may be mortified to breastfeed in public, but once you get over that hump, you’ll feel free to go places and live your life. Again, this is where having nursing bras and tops come in handy. It’ll be effortless to pop the baby on and off, without drawing too much attention from passersby.
From a nutritional standpoint, babies may only need 6-12 months of breast milk to build the immune system. Yet, there's no right or wrong amount of time to nurse. There are many benefits to extended breastfeeding.
I think Dr. Jack Newman hit the nail on the head: “Often we push children to become ‘independent’ too quickly. To sleep alone too soon, to wean from the breast too soon, to do without their parents too soon, to do everything too soon. Don’t push and the child will become independent soon enough.”
Many moms cut back on breastfeeding after a year or two and just stick with the night feeding for a while. You’ll know in your heart of hearts what works for you! Many babies suckle for comfort and enjoy that special bonding time as much as you do.
“Nursing is a wonderful calming tool on days when Mom needs to relax and to stave off an impending toddler tantrum,” Dr. William Sears says, adding: “If it's working for you and your child, and your mothering instinct tells you it's right—it's right! In my opinion, you're a health-savvy, modern mom and it seems that your friends and relatives are old-fashioned and misinformed.”
Feel free to contact me at Kindred Bravely with your tips and experiences. I would love to hear them!
Be you bravely,