Breastfeeding can be a truly magical bonding experience between a mother and her sweet new baby. Looking down at your tiny little one as they gently suckle, sleeping with them cuddled up against your body, tiny little hands reaching up to play with your hair are all such beautiful, tender moments that every nursing mother has the great honor of experiencing. Unfortunately, due to simple lack of preparation, education and support, many mothers will experience more struggle, tears and frustration than calm, blissful moments. This was my experience with my second child.
When my son was born I thought it would be simple, just pop the breast in his mouth and he nurses. Easy, right? Yeah, not so much. After six weeks of struggling through I gave up and switched to formula. I felt awful, like a failure, like I somehow let my baby down. Was there something wrong with me? Was my body defective? Of course the answer to those questions was a big, “NO!”
Two years later I became pregnant with my third son I started soaking up as much information on breastfeeding as I could find. I read books, blogs, attended La Leche League meetings, sought counsel from friends that had successfully breastfed their children, I found every bit of information that existed on breastfeeding to prepare myself for nursing my son. Thankfully, it worked! Here we are three years later and still going strong. I’m also currently, and blissfully, nursing my 4th son. Here are some of the most important things I learned throughout my research and experience over the last few years. Things that many of my peers failed to tell me the first time around.
1. Understand how breastfeeding and lactation works. This is the most important part of being successful, know how your body and your baby work together. Lactation works on a system of demand and supply (yes, in that order). When you give birth you will have a thick clear/yellow liquid called colostrum. It is packed full of protein, sugars and antibodies. Colostrum acts as a mild laxative to help baby clear the meconium out of their system. It also provides lots of sugar to help regulate baby’s blood sugar after birth. A few days after birth your body will start producing actual breast milk. You generally start out with a large amount of milk, your breasts will be hard and sometimes uncomfortable. As your baby nurses and removes milk, your breasts will produce more. The more milk baby removes (demand) the more milk you will produce (supply). This is how women are able to breastfeed twins and triplets. After the first few weeks you will stop feeling engorged due to supply regulation. At this point many women become concerned because they are used to the feeling of being engorged before a feeding, but in reality your body is now just producing what your baby needs and nothing more. Throughout your nursing relationship your baby will have periods of cluster feeding (nursing very often for small periods of time) which is designed to increase your supply as baby grows. These cluster feeds are completely normal and don’t mean that your baby isn’t getting enough milk. Your baby knows exactly what he or she needs and what to do to set your supply exactly where it needs to be. When you understand how lactation works you realize why it’s important to not offer bottles or pump before your supply has regulated and also why it is so important to nurse on demand rather than attempting to put baby on a feeding schedule.
2. Breastfeed right after birth. There is a small window of time after baby is born when they are awake and alert before they fall into the notorious “birth sleep” to recuperate from the hard work they just did being born. This is when the first feeding should take place. The sooner after birth that you can feed, the easier your breastfeeding relationship will be. Not to say that if you are separated from your baby you will have a terrible time nursing, but it is best to nurse right away. You can discuss with your doctor or midwife your desire to be skin to skin with baby to breastfeed right after the delivery and write it in your birth plan.
3. Set goals. There are times in the beginning that you literally just have to take it one day at a time. Especially if you have a child with latch issues or a lip tie, you will just have to tell yourself, “Today is NOT the day this baby gets a bottle.” In the beginning of breastfeeding my 3rd son I set a goal to make it to six months. Once we made it to six months we had already made it through all of our major struggles (mastitis and sore nipples) so I set my goal for a year. At one year I couldn’t imagine what it would even look like to wean my son, he wasn’t ready and, really, neither was I. From that point I made the decision to nurse him until he decided he was done. Having a goal really motivated me to push forward just a little bit harder. With my second son I didn’t set goals and so there was nothing to focus on.
4. Seek Support, lots of support. Support is absolutely crucial in successfully breastfeeding a baby. Find a friend that has met your longterm goal for breastfeeding. If you hope to nurse for two years (the AAP and WHO recommendation) then find a friend that has nursed for at least two years and when you need advice, help or just to vent, call her! She will be able to offer you adequate support because she has been there. She likely had to work through the same situations that you are going to have to work through and she can offer you the best advice. Breastfeeding support groups are very helpful as well. La Leche League has been amazing for me during my breastfeeding journey. Not only does the LLL group in Myrtle Beach meet once a month, but they also have a very active Facebook group where anyone can go to ask questions, share victories and offer support to other women. Through LLL I have found mothers that were able to teach me how to get rid of mastitis, how to nurse laying down, where to go to be assessed for a lip and tongue tie, get donor milk and everything in between. These women have an incredible amount of information and experience breastfeeding and want nothing more than to make sure that any woman that wants to breastfeed her child is able to do so.
5. Find a good Lactation Consultant. Even the most educated nursing mothers need a little help sometimes, that is when the LC comes in. It is preferable to find an IBCLC that is local to you. Most LCs will make home visits in the early weeks of breastfeeding to help assess latch, check for lip and tongue ties, test breast pumps for adequate suction, fit flanges and offer assistance anywhere it is needed. They are also able to do pre and post feed weighs in order to determine how much milk baby is consuming at the breast. We ended up using our local IBCLC, Julee Krechel, when I suspected my fourth son had a upper lip tie and posterior tongue tie. She confirmed and gave me the referral to have it taken care of. She was awesome, such a lifesaver.