Let me start off by saying that this post is meant to be purely informative and is not intended to add to the already intense pressure new mothers feel to successfully breastfeed their babies. One way or another – through breastfeeding, formula or a mix of both – you will feed your baby, and that is all that matters. This is a judgment-free zone – you do you!
As my breastfeeding journey with Rose is slowly (very slowly) coming to an end, I have been thinking a lot about how far we have come since the early days. If someone had foretold in those earliest days of new-motherhood I would still be nursing Rose at 15 months, I would NEVER have believed them. It was much harder than I expected – painful and mentally-challenging at first – and I nearly quit in the first couple of weeks. I am so glad I didn’t and feel lucky I was able to continue, but I do wish I had known more going in to the experience.
As someone who usually prides herself on exhaustively researching and planning for every life event, I knew surprisingly little about what breastfeeding entailed in the early weeks of baby’s life. As the first in my family and one of the first among my friends to have a baby, I had never really been around breastfeeding before. I had the naive notion that it would simply come naturally – Rose would shimmy up my chest immediately after birth, latch right on, and that would be that. Needless to say, we had nowhere near that easy of an experience. Here are 5 tips to better prepare yourself and set more realistic expectations before baby arrives:
- Do your research – and mentally prepare yourself
Most of the information I had seen ticked off the benefits of breastfeeding for baby and mom and painted an idyllic picture of nursing as something that should come completely naturally. This unrealistic picture sets an impossible standard by which new mothers judge themselves…cue the mom guilt/ feelings of inadequacy! Breastfeeding is hard, but at least if you arm yourself with real knowledge going into it, you will know what to expect and that your struggle is normal, that it is a passing phase, and that it is okay to ask for help.
Kellymom.com is a rich resource of information on every aspect of breastfeeding. This guide of breastfeeding basics is immensely helpful and a good place to start. If you prefer reading a physical book, The Nursing Mother’s Companion is a good one.
The information can be overwhelming, so below are my top 3 important facts to know about the first couple weeks of breastfeeding:
Frequency of eating – around 10 – 12 times per day
I knew babies nursed frequently, but I had taken little time to consider what that meant practically speaking – that I and I alone would be on the clock every 2 hours (from the start of each feeding!). By the time I nursed Rose on both sides, burped her, and changed her, it seemed like I would have 5 free minutes to pee or ravenously raid the pantry and the whole thing would start over again. I wish I had better prepared myself mentally for the commitment. It would have helped to understand that it was not a failure on my part that I resented breastfeeding a little early on. Know that this will be a passing phase and is hard for many new moms. Once we both got got better at breastfeeding and fell into a rhythm, I cherished the bonding experience and the built-in reminder to stop time and enjoy the moment.
Low supply is rare
At some point early on, you will feel like you are starving your baby. Your baby will seem hungry ALL THE TIME, and it is normal to feel like you are not providing him or her enough milk. This can be especially true if your baby lost a percentage of his or her birth weight, as is typical, and is having trouble gaining it back. This was the case for us, and it was very stressful. This article helped reassure me, explaining that low supply is pretty rare. A newborn baby has a stomach the size of a cherry at birth and cannot take in much milk at once, leading to frequency of eating. Breastfeeding works on a supply and demand basis – you will produce as much milk as your baby demands. The frequent feedings early on signal to your brain that your body must supply milk to meet your baby’s needs. Your baby is getting enough if he or she is gaining weight and producing enough wet and dirty diapers.
Some pain may be normal, but seek help if it persists
It drove me nuts in the hospital when I was told repeatedly “no pain is normal” or “you shouldn’t feel any pain” – the subtext being I was doing something wrong. Your nipples are not accustomed to repeated tugging, sucking and chafing, so some discomfort is to be expected as your body adjusts and you and baby perfect the latch. You are both new at this, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Use a good nipple cream, support your back and arms, and be obsessive about the latch (I hate this word!). I called in a nurse or LC every time I fed Rose in the hospital to help with our latch and make sure we were doing it correctly. If the pain persists, as it did for me, seek more help. In our case, our LC and pediatrician identified that Rose’s tongue and lip tie were preventing a proper latch. After Rose had a procedure to correct it, my discomfort and Rose’s latch rapidly improved.
- Watch videos on latch technique – and bookmark them for later
Speaking of “the latch,” know what a good one looks like. I had never seen someone breastfeed a baby up close before Rose was born. I had heard the word “latch” before, but knew little about the technique involved. To those people for whom “the latch” comes naturally, I applaud you. For most, it is a learned skill. Reading about latch technique is great, but for me videos with real mothers and babies were the most helpful (even more helpful than the breastfeeding class I took). Watch them a few times before birth and bookmark them so they are readily available when you bring baby home. In the fog of new motherhood, I found I had to remind myself of the proper technique multiple times. I found this video particularly helpful.
- Plan for help
Research lactation consultants in your area and choose one that is highly-regarded and makes house calls. Sessions can run up to $300, but certain insurance plans may cover it and, honestly, I think it is well worth the investment if you find a good one. Ask moms in your area, read Yelp reviews, or check out the USCLA directory to find an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). If you do this before baby arrives, you will save yourself the stress of finding one when you desperately need help with breastfeeding and are preoccupied with the small task of keeping a tiny and fragile human alive. I had the number and email of the LC I chose on hand in the hospital. When I quickly realized that breastfeeding was not coming to me as naturally as I had hoped, I scheduled an appointment while I was still in the hospital for the day after I arrived home. Having this appointment was a godsend for me.
- Create a comfy nursing space
Choose a comfortable place in your home where you will nurse your baby the majority of the time in the first couple weeks. You will likely feel marooned there. But don’t worry! Before you know it, you will feel like you can nurse your baby anywhere – the couch, the dining room table under a napkin, in a baby carrier, upside down (haha!) etc. Until then, choose a supportive seat with somewhere to put up your feet and somewhere to place things in easy reach – your phone, a drink (you will be so thirsty!), a snack (you will be ravenous!), and the remote. I caught up on a LOT of TV. Now is not the time to worry about screen time – as she sucks away, your baby is blissfully unaware. In the first few weeks, I nursed Rose the majority of the time during the day in our living room. It helped me feel less isolated not shutting myself in the nursery every time Rose needed to eat. It took me a while to get comfortable nursing in front of other people, save my very close family and friends. This is something worth considering when confronted with an onslaught of well-intentioned visitors. To the extent you can, only allow visitors who will be helpful and who will not make you uncomfortable while nursing. The first few weeks with your baby are so sacred, so take ownership of them.
- Arm yourself with the essentials
I put this item last on purpose – it is more important to educate yourself and invest in help than it is to buy gear. That being said, there are certainly some essential items that can make your nursing experience much easier. I will do a longer post on breastfeeding gear, including pumping, but for now, let’s focus on essentials for the earliest days of breastfeeding:
- Motherlove nipple cream – I tried most of the organic, all-natural nipple creams out there, and this is by far the best. The consistency is smooth and frictionless – perfect for tender nipples – and the ingredients are minimal and safe for baby. I recommend bringing this to the hospital.
- Bamboobies breast pads – Despite the awful name, these nipple pads made of sustainable bamboo are incredibly soft and absorbent, without any bulk.
- Lasinoh gel pads – If you suffer from very painful, cracked nipples as I did, these gel pads are very soothing and encourage moist wound healing. I would alternate between soothing my nipples with the gel pads and airing them out.
- Comfortable pull away bra – In the early weeks, I recommend against investing in a sized nursing bra. Your breast size will fluctuate in this stage, so a simple pull-away style bra is best until your boobs land on a size. This one is very soft, made of organic cotton and accommodates a wide range of sizes.
- Nook nursing pillow – There aren’t that many non-toxic nursing pillows out there, but I highly recommend this one. It is very soft, has just the right amount of firmness, and can be repurposed later on to prop up your baby for play time.
- Sunflower lecithin – I started taking this supplement a couple weeks into breastfeeding after suffering from painful blocked ducts and milk blisters. When I forget to take it, the blocks and blisters return. Coincidence? I think not. It is a food-based supplement with no side-effects, so I recommend taking this as a preventative measure to my friends. See more information here.
- Nursing cover – To nurse your baby discreetly in public (in the early days, really just the doctor’s office for me), this nursing cover is incredibly soft and stretchy enough to accommodate various nursing positions.
- Water bottle – You will be SO THIRSTY while nursing. You need a lot of water to produce all that milk. I found having a water bottle by my side was easiest early on, as I was not adept enough to handle baby and an open glass.
- One-handed snacks! – You will be RAVENOUS from making all that milk. I recommend planning to have a variety of nutrient-dense snacks available that can be consumed one-handed. Ideas: granola bars (I like these GoMacro bars and these Health Warrior chia bars ), trail mix, almond butter and banana sandwiches, these nourishing muffins.