I didn’t ask nearly enough questions about breastfeeding before my baby was born. I guess I just assumed that since it was natural, that it would be easy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Breastfeeding is tough, painful (sometimes excruciatingly so), and often discouraging. However, it does get better once you make it past those brutal first few weeks. Unfortunately, I see so many women get down on themselves and throw in the towel early, even if they feel guilty about it and wish they had been able to breastfeed to whatever their original goal had been.
Before I go on, I just want to clarify that the purpose of this post is not to bash formula moms. I’ll never know what it’s like to be in someone else’s place, so I’m not going to judge them for their decision on how and what to feed their baby. However, since I have exclusively breastfed my baby (through eleven months as I write this), I get asked all the time what it’s like, what’s my “secret,” and what it “should” be like. I wanted to share what I learned through months of trial and error in hopes that I can help others get the answers they didn’t know they needed before their baby arrived.
First of all, and most importantly, there’s no secret and there’s no “right” way to breastfeed. In those early days, I had no clue what I was doing (and half the time no clue what was going on at all due to my post-surgery meds) and merely stared as the hospital’s lactation consultant pinched and shoved my breast in my baby’s mouth. That was about as comfortable as it sounds.
Throughout the next few weeks I suffered through upwards of twelve nursing sessions every day that sometimes stretched on for an hour at a time. My baby seemed insatiable, and to top it off, she often clawed at me, writhed in my arms, and screamed between gulps. My nipples were cracked and bleeding and she didn’t even seem to appreciate it!
Surely this wasn’t ok, this couldn’t be normal. Breastfeeding was supposed to be this wonderful bonding experience– it wasn’t supposed to HURT! Was I doing it wrong? Was my baby getting enough to eat? Surely she had to be, since she was on my boob literally twelve hours a day, but I did have one doctor suggest that I supplement. My gut said no, and I pressed on, determined to make it work.
My mom suggested I reach out to one of my cousins for advice. I was a little nervous and ashamed to ask for help– I seemed to be failing big time and who wants to admit that? To my surprise, she commiserated with my pain, and encouraged me to hang in there. She assured me that my body would get used to it, my baby would get better at it, and it wouldn’t hurt forever.
She was right. It took about three months, but one day I realized that it wasn’t painful anymore, at all. In fact, I kind of enjoyed nursing. My baby was growing and thriving, and amazingly, she was a big baby (consistently 70th percentile). That was a surprise, as both my husband and I are on the small side. My body alone was nourishing this little being, and was actually doing a darn good job at it! I was amazed and proud at the same time.
Going back to work brought a new challenge: the dreaded pumping sessions. Twice a day I retreated to the third-floor (and not accessible to the public) bathroom where my supervisor had fixed up the handicapped stall for me with an armchair, table, and extension cord. The cleaning crew thoughtfully mopped almost every day, even though I was the only one using it.
Pumping took at least twenty minutes and was mind-numbingly boring. I would stay until I had replaced what I knew my baby was drinking while I was away. Sometimes when I arrived home, to my despair, the baby had been extra hungry and dipped into a third bottle. I then felt obligated to squeeze in a pump before bed to “catch up.” Every night I had to wash and sterilize all the pump parts (I definitely recommend getting a spare set of parts– this is the set I bought to go with my Medela Pump-in-Style Advanced.) and pack my bag for work the next morning. And so the cycle repeated until I left that job. It was an occasion worth celebrating when I putaway my pump for the last time.
Doctors don’t volunteer much information on breastfeeding– their primary goal is to get the baby out– and from what I can tell, a lot of women are either too scared to ask or like me assume it will all be instinct. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a lactation consultant until she stopped by to check on me a few hours after birth (thank goodness!)
What I wish I had known about breastfeeding before my baby was born:
- Newborn stomachs are tiny, maybe they size of a marble, so it doesn’t take much milk to fill them up at this point (the “magic number” of 4 ounces doesn’t apply until much later.) However, new babies aren’t very efficient and can take thirty minutes to an hour to get those few drops out. That could understandably be frustrating, so don’t think you’re doing something wrong if your baby cries– a lot.
- Breast milk digests quickly, so when your baby cries an hour after you last fed them, they ARE hungry. This doesn’t mean that you’re not making enough milk, it just means that they’ve already used up the milk in their tummy and need more. Your baby will nurse at least 8-12 times a day (and night) at first. If your baby is making lots of pee diapers then they are getting plenty to eat.
- Breastfeeding can be painful, almost tortuous, for the first few weeks. Remember, you have a ravenous little person sucking on a very sensitive area for hours upon hours a day. Lanolin is your friend– apply liberally after every session. It can stain, so wear loose clothes, and nothing expensive…just in case you were thinking about dressing up…ha!
- You will have people suggest supplementing with formula. Remember that this is their opinion, and even a doctor is not necessarily an expert on breastfeeding. It is ultimately your choice, so don’t let anyone pressure you either way. When in doubt, look up a lactation consultant in your area. They can show you techniques that might help or reassure you that you’re doing just fine. It is worth the expense if it brings you peace of mind, and some insurances may cover the service.
- It will get better! It doesn’t seem possible– I didn’t believe it either, but breastfeeding DOES get easier, in fact, it can become enjoyable. My baby looks forward to nothing more than mommy’s milk, and I treasure these precious moments where she needs only me. I know that it will all be over too soon and I’ll probably miss it.
I won’t kid you by saying it will be easy or that you will love it right away, but if breastfeeding is important to you, then you CAN do it. I’m so glad I stuck it out, through all the pain, exhaustion, and tears– though I definitely don’t miss those early struggles!
If you’re worried or feeling discouraged, there are lots of great resources available– two of the most well-known and respected are La Leche League International and Kelly Mom. La Leche League publishes a guide called The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and it is an excellent book on the subject. Also, don’t be afraid to ask family and friends for help or advice! We’ve all been there, and all have different experiences to share. Sometimes it helps just to simply hear that someone else has gone through the same thing.
Whatever the outcome may be for you, whether your breastfeed for over a year or stop after 3 months (I’ve known friends who’ve done both), remember that you have accomplished a great thing. It’s no small feat to bring a baby into this world and it is equally amazing to provide (for any length of time) this perfect food your body created especially for them.
Please feel welcome to share your breastfeeding stories, advice, and encouragement in the comments below. Your words could help other mamas! You are also more than welcome to email me with any questions, as I’m happy to answer from my experience.
Here are some of my Breastfeeding Essentials:
- Lanolin to protect nipples
- Simple cloth diapers to protect clothes from spit-up, drool, etc. (I tucked them into my bra while she nursed)
- Extra set of pump parts (these are for the Medela Pump in Style Advanced, which worked very well for me)
- Extra set of Medela bottles (the only ones Annabelle would drink from)
- A good nursing bra (This one is so comfortable and even after over a year of use still is in amazing shape!)
- Steam Bags which allow you to quickly & easily sterilize pump & bottle parts and even pacifiers in the microwave (these were a lifesaver when I was working and pumping to keep breastfeeding!)
- Follow-up reading “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” by La Leche League
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Be sure to read my follow-up posts:
Pumping Breast Milk on the Job: How to Make it “Work”
5 Essential Weight Loss Tips for Breastfeeding Moms
Where to Donate Breast Milk
Disclaimer: This post is based on my personal experiences– I am not a medical professional and this should not be taken as medical advice.