I guess it’s safe to say that when I was pregnant with my first child, I had the same delusions many women have during their first pregnancy. My fantasies included wearing skinny jeans the day after the baby was born, taking long walks in the sunshine while pushing my smiling child in my $600 stroller, having time to reconnect with my husband for lunches at his office while I was on maternity leave, and spending nights awake in my rocking chair staring into my baby’s eyes while I peacefully nursed him or her to sleep.
Anyone reading this who has a child is probably nodding and laughing. Am I right? To anyone reading this who is pregnant for the first time and thinking, “oh, it will be totally different for me,” I say, bless your little heart.
My seven short weeks of maternity leave were a mix of tears, sleepless nights, visits from friends and family, hundreds of diaper changes, and learning how to nurse. I had made a commitment to nurse my baby once she (Eleanor Anne Baecker) was born in October 2008. I had done a lot of work leading up to the birth, including taking two breastfeeding classes; reading several books; buying an adorable nursing cover, boppy pillow, nursing bras, breast pump, etc.; and hiring a doula to help with support during and after the birth. I was secure in the fact that I had done enough prep work and planning that this experience would be a piece of cake. Again, I was wrong.
Nursing, which is supposedly “the most natural thing in the world,” often doesn’t come very naturally at all. It takes time, patience, experience, and support, which most new moms don’t have, making the transition difficult, discouraging, and sometimes futile. I am happy to report that after much trial and error, I successfully breastfed both my daughters for at least the first 14 months.
Learn From My Experience If you’re having your own breastfeeding challenges, the following tips and recommendations will hopefully help you overcome any difficulties so you can share this special time with your baby.
- Get support. This is key. I always say, would you go to court without a lawyer? Help is available in many forms. Typically, a lactation consultant will visit your hospital room after your baby is born. If you have a homebirth (like me), you can hire a postpartum doula or visit your local La Leche League. I took all the help I could get, even when I had my second daughter. Each baby is different and your body reacts differently after each birth. Your nursing experience with your first baby, positive or negative, doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on your next.
- Take care of yourself. This is likely the most difficult tip on this list. Telling a new mom to care for herself is like telling ice not to melt. It just won’t happen! But, as a nursing mom, you have to make sure you are paying attention to what your body needs so you can provide what your baby needs. This includes getting enough rest, staying hydrated, remaining calm, and eating healthy.
- Be patient. Nursing is similar to labor. You can’t rush it. You need to work through the pain and at the end you will have something beautiful. Well, let’s be honest, what you will really have are large breasts, nursing bras, sore nipples, a clunky nursing cover, and lack of sleep. BUT, once you and baby figure it out and get into a routine, I promise that it does get easier. The first three months of nursing are by far the most intense and difficult. So set attainable goals for yourself. When I first committed to nursing, my original goal was three months of exclusive breastfeeding. After I hit that mark, I decided to try for six months, then 12, and the rest is history. Once your baby is on solid foods, the frequency decreases and things get much easier.
- Pumping. If you are a working mom or you will be away from your child for long periods, pumping will be a necessary evil in your life. I returned to work full time after seven weeks for both pregnancies and quickly became well acquainted with pumping. It can be cumbersome, so keep the following in mind.
- Connect with someone who has used a pump before. I was lucky to have my doula help me put my pump together and explain how all the pieces worked and fit (there are a lot of moving parts with that thing!).
- Make sure you have plenty of supplies, including tubes, parts, milk storage bags, sharpie marker, a cooler labeled with your name, and sanitizing bags. Depending on whether your pump is new or borrowed, some of these items may come with it, while others will need to be purchased separately. Luckily, breast pumps are now covered under insurance, which makes them more accessible to many women. If you plan to pump on a regular basis, invest in a good one.
- Be consistent. If you are unable to nurse and don’t pump, your milk will decrease (see Supply and Demand further down).
- And finally, my favorite tip: Your milk is directly related to the levels of oxytocin in your body. This is a super cool hormone that’s released when you are having an emotional reaction to something. So, as you pump, look at a picture or watch a video of your baby, close your eyes, and imagine you are snuggling him or her. You can even bring a blanket with their scent. All of these suggestions should help and it’s awesome!
- Increasing your milk supply. There are many tips and tricks to increase your supply. The first is to consistently nurse. It sounds silly, but your milk runs on a supply and demand basis, so if you don’t demand it, your body won’t supply it. If you can’t nurse, replace it with pumping. Yes, it can be exhausting. I remember many, many, many nights pumping on the couch half-asleep before heading to bed. Your body and your baby will thank you for it … someday. Don’t hold your breath, though. I’m actually still waiting. Someone say thank you already! You should also make sure you are hydrated. If you don’t have enough fluid in your body, you can’t produce milk. Same goes for eating well and getting rest. You should also try to avoid unnecessary stress. I heard so many stories of women being hounded, typically, by their mothers-in-law who told them that their babies are hungry and they should use formula as a supplement. Please back off, mothers-in-law! You know your baby and your body. Trust them both. It can be difficult to listen to those motherly instincts when you’re tired, scared, and your hormones are out of whack, but try to focus on yourself and your baby. Ask yourself:
- Does your baby have wet and messy diapers?
- Is your body producing milk?
- Do you see milk dribble out of your baby’s mouth when you are finished nursing?
- Do you feel “let down” when your baby nurses?
- Are you uncertain whether your baby is getting enough nourishment and gaining enough weight? In that case, buy a baby scale or swing for periodic weight checks. There are also a number of supplements that can help increase your milk supply, the most popular being fenugreek, blessed thistle, red raspberry, and brewer’s yeast. You can buy tea bags with a mixture of any of these herbs or purchase loose-leaf herbs at a health food store.
- Supply and demand. As previously mentioned, nursing is based on supply and demand. In the early days of your baby’s life, it is recommended that you nurse on demand, meaning if your baby is hungry, feed him or her! After some time, you may notice that the feeding sessions decrease to every 1½ hours, then every two, and so on. If you plan to be away from your baby for any length of time, throw in an extra pumping session or two to help maintain your milk. Your body knows the difference between baby and that pump, so you don’t want to be in a position where your supply dwindles. Fortunately, employers are required to allow women adequate time and privacy to pump at work.
- Be comfortable and confident. When Eleanor was just a few days old, my husband invited a group of friends over to have dinner and see the baby. I remember trying to nurse her in the living room with everyone around. I had a beautiful pink nursing cover that I was ready to debut. She was under the cover, it was hot, we were both sweating, I couldn’t see her to help her latch on properly, my sore nipples were killing me, and my patience was wearing thin. It wasn’t three minutes later that I ripped the cover off over my head, threw it across the room, and looked everyone in the face and exclaimed, “I am a nursing mom. My new baby and I are trying to learn how to do this effectually and we cannot accomplish it with a big cloth cover getting in our way. If this makes you uncomfortable, you are welcome to leave!” They must have all been really hungry because no one left, but it was the first shift in my coming to terms with my new nursing reality. I never used a cover again. I was discreet, however, and if the situation warranted more discretion, I used a small blanket. Do what works for you!
- Wait, what? (aka confusion). There are so many moving parts when your baby first arrives, but one very real possibility is something called nipple confusion. If you are switching between a bottle, a breast, and a binky, your baby may reject the breast because he or she is confused as to what provides milk. It is recommended that you wait at least two to three weeks before introducing a binky and four weeks before introducing a bottle. Disclaimer: I waited the entire four weeks with Eleanor (first baby) and an entire four days with Charlotte (second baby). Again, do what works for you!
- Diet. I do not mean trying to lose your baby weight. After I had Eleanor, one of my main food groups was Nutella and I lived to tell about it, so no worries on weight. I’m talking about paying attention to what you’re eating and how it might affect your baby’s belly. Remember that your new little friend doesn’t have a fully developed intestinal system, so things like garlic, caffeine, spices, or foods with a high dairy content could very easily affect your baby’s mood. Keep a small food journal to see if what you’re eating is directly related to any intestinal issues your baby may have. You don’t have to swear off cheese or your morning latte for the rest of your life, but be patient and adjust as needed.
- Do what works for you. That’s it. You can read books, this post, talk to friends, listen to your mother-in-law, etc., but ultimately you need to do what works best for you, your baby, and your family. All the opinions in the world don’t matter as much as your confidence in your own choices. Parenting is a lifetime of ups and downs, but if you make the choices that are right for you, the rest will eventually fall into place.