Let me just start by saying that I know many women who thoroughly enjoy breastfeeding their babies. It can absolutely be a beautiful bonding experience and there is nothing quite like it. For some mothers and babies, this connection is immediate and the breastfeeding journey has very few bumps in the road. It is truly a symbiotic relationship, providing countless benefits for both mom and baby. When I talked to my mother about breastfeeding, she described her experience as relatively simple and something very instinctual that requires no formal training. This scenario made sense to me – mothers have breastfed their babies since the beginning of time, after all. I was completely shocked at how strikingly different and quite frankly awful the first few months of breastfeeding my daughter were for me. We eventually got to a better place where I was able to start seeing the sunnier side of breastfeeding, but it took a ton of work, perseverance, and literal blood, sweat and tears. If you are someone who is experiencing the darker side of breastfeeding, please know that you are not alone and that there is nothing wrong with you. Breastfeeding is a huge commitment and it is not for the faint of heart. It can get better and there is no shame in asking for help. There is also no shame in supplementing with formula. You and your baby should not suffer because of your guilt or the ideal that you are any less of a mother because your breastfeeding journey ended before you wanted it to. Fed is best.
Here are some things I wish I would have known before my breastfeeding journey began. I didn’t take a breastfeeding class before my daughter’s birth, so I had no idea about the many things that can go wrong in breastfeeding. If you are in the beginning of your breastfeeding journey or about to give birth, I truly hope that something you read here helps you and your little one out of the darkness. Even if you do take a breastfeeding class, there is just a lot about breastfeeding that people don’t tell you! Struggling with breastfeeding doesn’t make you an incompetent mother; it makes you a normal mother.
Your baby’s latch is one of the most important aspects of breastfeeding. A poor latch can make things extremely uncomfortable or painful for mom and can prevent your baby from getting enough milk. A poor latch is typically caused by a lip or a tongue tie which prevents your baby from getting your nipple deep enough into his or her mouth to effectively express the milk. A lip tie is what happens when the membrane connecting your baby’s lip to their gums is thicker than it should be and restricts movement of the lips. A tongue tie similarly is when the membrane connecting the tongue to the bottom of the mouth restricts movement of your baby’s tongue. Both of these are hereditary, so either you or your spouse can pass down a lip or tongue tie. Not only can these things affect breastfeeding, but they can cause speech delays and dental issues down the road. If you feel like your baby has a poor latch, you should see a professional as soon as possible to determine if they are lip or tongue-tied. There is a simple procedure to release the ties. This will immediately begin to improve your breastfeeding relationship. In the meanwhile, you can use a nipple shield to help your baby latch and protect your nipples from damage. These can take some time to wean your baby off of, so if you decide to use one, it is a good idea to see a lactation consultant.
No matter what you hear, it is NOT normal for breastfeeding to be painful. This is a common misconception due to so many mothers having this experience. If your baby is latched correctly, there should be no pain. Your nipples may get a little irritated in the beginning from the constant feeding, but there should never be any swelling, bleeding, or true pain while baby is latched. Sometimes babies who are either lip or tongue-tied can learn to nurse with the tie, which is why you will hear some women describe breastfeeding as initially very painful, but then it gets better after a few weeks. Babies who have both a lip and tongue tie usually can not learn to feed effectively without having one or both ties revised. My baby was both lip and tongue tied, but we didn’t know in the beginning, so we didn’t have her ties reversed until she was a month old. By that time, she had already caused extensive damage to my nipples that took months to fully heal.
Your diet is crucial to your breastfeeding journey. Make sure that you are eating plenty of small, healthy snacks and meals throughout the day that include protein. I know it’s difficult to find time to eat when your baby is a newborn, but it’s very important that you maintain your energy and give your body enough fuel to feed two. I was ravenously hungry while breastfeeding, more so than I ever was during pregnancy. Protein shakes and smoothies are easy snacks that are packed full of nutrition. You can also eat oatmeal in the morning to support your milk supply. It’s also important to stay well hydrated. You will need to drink a lot more water than normal. If you spend time in the sun or consume any alcohol, you can expect to feel the effects of dehydration much stronger during breastfeeding. Drink up, buttercup!
There is a second side to mom’s diet that may or may not affect you and your baby. Some babies have food sensitivities or allergies, and can be affected by what you are eating. If your little one is having a lot of tummy issues (ie: gas, colic, green stool) or skin problems (rashes, eczema, etc), you can try eliminating some of these common culprits from your diet and see if your baby’s symptoms improve. There is unfortunately a lot of trial and error involved with this and it will take a few days for you to see the effects of eliminating a food from your diet. Try eliminating dairy, soy, gluten, eggs and nuts from your diet if you think your baby may have a food sensitivity. The most effective way to do this is eliminating all of them for a week and then slowly adding one back at a time to see which one your baby is bothered by. You can also try eliminating one at a time as a less drastic alternative. Also, keep in mind that even if your baby has a food sensitivity, it is quite likely that they will outgrow it. I had to cut dairy out of my diet with my baby, but once she hit 6 months, she was able to start eating dairy without any symptoms.
Position Your Baby (and Yourself)
Breastfeeding for the first time felt very awkward for me. I was so worried about the tiny, fragile little human in my arms that I would often feed her in a position that was extremely uncomfortable for me. I was tense all the time and my back would ache constantly. This continued for the first 4-6 weeks until I learned how to relax while breastfeeding and put my comfort first. You are going to spend a LOT of time breastfeeding. It’s important that you aren’t putting any unnecessary strain on your body, especially as you are recovering from birth. I really like this nursing pillow which helps you position your baby and comfortably supports your back and posture.
When you’re positioning baby, try a few different ways of holding your baby to see which one works best for the two of you. This video provides a great step-by-step guide to two of the most common positions to nurse your baby in, and she also talks about the mother’s posture and how to make breastfeeding more comfortable for both of you. As your baby gets bigger, you will probably switch between a few different holds. Make sure that your baby is not swaddled while you feed them. Studies have shown that babies nurse much more effectively when they have use of their hands. Your baby may enjoy fidgeting with something in their hands while nursing. You can buy a breastfeeding necklace so that they don’t fidget with anything they aren’t supposed to (like your other nipple!)
If You’re Pumping
I could write an entire post just on pumping and I probably will at some point. There are a couple very important things about pumping that I will discuss here. Neither of these things was fully explained to me when I began breastfeeding and I wish I would have known!
Pumping can be a necessity for a few reasons. Perhaps your baby has a poor latch initially and you are giving your baby bottles temporarily to prevent more damage to your nipples prior to a tongue or lip tie revision (this was me!) Maybe you’re pumping because you’ve had to go back to work. Some people also choose to pump so that the father can help with midnight feedings, or so that they can begin building a freezer stash of milk for a rainy day. Whatever your reason for pumping, you should know going into it that pumping is not the equivalent to breastfeeding. The pump is not as effective as your baby is at removing the milk from your breasts. This means that if you are exclusively pumping, you will have to pump for longer than you would breastfeed your baby to make the same amount of milk. This also means that over time, you will have to work much harder to maintain your milk supply if you are exclusively pumping. The amount of time required to do this becomes infeasible for many women, which can ultimately lead to a shorter breastfeeding relationship between you and your baby. If you have to pump, make sure that you are breastfeeding as much as possible to maintain a good milk supply and avoid this problem.
The second thing that nobody ever talks about is the issue of foremilk and hindmilk. There are not two different types of breastmilk, but for the sake of explaining this phenomenon, you can think of foremilk as skim milk. It is thin, somewhat watery in texture, and has a lower fat content. This is the milk that comes out when you first begin pumping or breastfeeding. Hindmilk is the thicker, heartier milk that comes later, and contains all the good fats that keep your baby feeling full. Think of this milk as whole milk. There is not a sharp distinction between the two; the transition is gradual. Your baby needs a good balance of the hindmilk and foremilk. If your baby gets too much foremilk and not enough hindmilk, it can cause stomach upset and poop that is lime green.
Now that I’ve really freaked you out, I want to just say that if you are exclusively breastfeeding your baby, you probably don’t need to worry about this at all. Babies are great at removing milk from the breast, even the thicker hindmilk I mentioned above. The only reason I even bring this up is for mothers who are pumping regularly. It’s important that you pump long enough to get a good balance of both types of milk. You should aim to pump NO LESS than 15 minutes per side, and longer if your breasts are very full. Keep in mind that your baby will be able to do this quicker than your pump, so if your baby only drinks for 10 minutes per side, don’t worry. He or she is most likely getting everything they need.