I was talking to my cousin on the phone one day about 3-4 weeks after my little Nugget was born. She had a baby two weeks, to the day, after I did. “I don’t know about you,” she said, “but I feel like breastfeeding is the most unnatural natural thing ever.”
I can tell you: I prepared for labor and delivery more than a lot of people (chalk it up to my Type A tendencies – needing to feel in control when I am not at all in the driver’s seat!). But one thing I was not prepared for was learning how to breastfeed. I just assumed, like most women I know, that it would come naturally. That it would be relatively easy. That it would be icing on the cake after pushing a watermelon out your hoo-ha.
Nope. Not necessarily true.
How many of us visualize our labors, thinking that after the baby makes his or her grand entrance into the world, we will be lounging on a chaise, sipping a cool beverage in one hand while cooing and smiling at the little person who tenderly nuzzles into your breast? Well, sure… when it goes right. But for a lot of us, it takes a long time to get it “right”. And then just when we find our groove, something changes. My Nugget just turned five months, and I’m still learning. So, I’m here to share my story – to help you prepare, and accept, if things don’t fall into place right off the bat. While I’m at it, I might as well share a few of the things I’ve learned, and a few of the things I’ve learned to disregard.
Please note: I am NOT a lactation consultant, I have never been one, and I am not nearly as smart as one. All of what I write is based on my own experience, and just as with any other advice you might receive, 1) consult your chosen expert, 2) take what works for you and forget the rest.
Myth #1: Breastfeeding is painless.
Eventually, this is true. But those first couple weeks are tough. From what I gather, it’s normal to have some pain when that little mouth is sucking away, before your nipples become used to it. The level of pain is what you probably want to pay closer attention to. I used to do a mental checklist to see if the pain was normal or something I should look into: 1) Check her latch. Often re-doing the latch several times makes the pain worse, so try to adjust as much as you can while baby is on the breast. Dr. Jack Newman has a great article on proper latching. 2) Does the pain subside after a few minutes? 3) After two weeks, are you still in so much pain that you either can’t nurse without ibuprophen, or dread feedings? If this is the case…
Lesson #1: SEEK HELP
I cannot stress this enough. Number three above? That was me. By week four, the pain was getting worse and worse. I had visited the lactation support group at my local hospital, and while it was nice to get some support from the other mamas in the room, I was disappointed with the advice I was getting from the nurses and more confused than ever. Supposedly her latch was great. She was still gaining weight like a champ. I was told that the pain would go away eventually, or told that I probably wasn’t experiencing pain, but just tingling (really?! Last I checked I knew what pain felt like.) Everyone seemed to be giving me conflicting advice.
Enter Amanda Ogden, at the mama’hood in Denver. My co-worker had enlisted Amanda’s expert advice when she gave birth to twins 7 months before, and swore up and down that she wouldn’t had made it without her. “Uh-huh, ok,” I would say when I was pregnant, and shove the post-it with Amanda’s contact info in my purse. But after enduring 4 weeks of increasing pain, I looked her up. I found that the mama’hood offered drop-in lactation group classes led by Amanda and her team – an affordable alternative to a one-on-one session. I knew that this was my last resort. If they couldn’t help me, I was giving up the boob.
Within 5 minutes of arriving to group, one of Amanda’s lactation superstars, Ginny, came up and introduced herself. I was undressing the Nugget, getting her ready for the weigh-in, and she was screaming. Immediately, Ginny noticed that my precious Nug was tongue-tied – and quite prominently. She explained how that could be the root of my intense pain, gave me a referral for a pediatric dentist, and made me feel like I was, in fact, SANE. After 2 hours at group, I walked away with so much more knowledge about all things breastfeeding, a plan for addressing my vasospasms (my pain even had a name!), and some much needed emotional relief. So I wasn’t the only one that felt like this “natural” experience was totally difficult and unmanageable? Everyone in that room had an issue of some kind! And yet when I left, I felt reenergized to keep trying, and to figure it out.
Often we don’t seek help because we feel like we may be failing. We don’t want to expose our vulnerabilities. We are afraid we might be the only one who can’t get it right. But in reality, not seeking help may isolate us even more. Finding this group got me out of the house, it allowed me to meet other moms and babies, it gave me answers to my questions in a safe environment, with expert advice. Nothing was off limits. It helped me grow more confident and empowered and made me feel like, with a little support, I can provide for my child the way I imagined I would. In eons past, women used to teach other women how to feed and raise their babies. They would sit together and share stories, share advice, and even share milk. Now, we all expect we will figure it out on our own. Take it from me. Seek help. And if you can, do it before the baby is born. Put a recommended lactation consultant on speed dial. Because you may find yourself looking at your watch, realizing you have to feed your little one in another 2 hours, and having no idea how you’ll do it.
MYTH #2: Breastfeeding is the easiest option.
Cheapest? Yes. Most convenient? Yes. Easiest? Ha!!!
At about 3-4 weeks, I hit a wall. It was about the same time I was in pain… and sleep deprivation was at its peak. I had told myself “You just need to get through the first three weeks, and then you will be off and running.” Let me tell you, that worked for… the first three weeks. Then, when there wasn’t some magical epiphany, no spontaneous shift at that three week mark, my hormonal self came crashing down. Wait – you mean she still isn’t sleeping through the night? Wait, are you telling me I still have to pump or feed the baby every three hours? WAIT, you mean I can’t just go out and have a couple – few vodka gimlets to take the edge off?? I called or texted every woman in my life that has breastfed, and desperately pleaded. “This is going to change right? When do they start sleeping eight hours? When do I get to decrease the number of feedings? When can I HAVE MY LIFE BACK!?”
My pleas were met with encouraging words…. a lot of “you can do it” and “it does get better”…. but no concrete answers to my questions. Because, there aren’t any. Every baby is different, every story is different. The reality is this: when you are breastfeeding, it will be the closest you will ever be to your baby. Literally and figuratively, for better and for worse. You are living in a symbiotic relationship, which is sometimes Really. Freaking. Tough. Add to it the dietary restrictions you may have to take on if your little one has reflux (yep, right here) and it feels even harder. For me, giving up cheese and ice cream induced a few extra meltdowns.
But sometimes, it is absolutely beautiful. Like, take-your-breath-away-beautiful. When your baby starts taking breaks during feedings just to look up at you, smile and coo, your heart melts, and you realize, these are the moments that make it all worth it. It amazes me when I wake in the middle of the night, before I hear a cry, and think “She will need to eat soon…”. And without fail, five minutes later, she awakens. We are in synch. Two peas in a pod.
And it does get better, and quicker. Five minutes in the middle of the night is much more palatable than one hour. One glass of wine is better than none. Giving up dairy has helped me shed some pounds. By four or five months, these kids are pros, and you feel less inhibited. Sure, some days I still think “It would be so much easier if I could just go away for 48 hours and not have to think about my boobs.” But then I remember, in the grand span of my life, this is actually a very small window of time.
I’m not here to tell you the reasons why I’d recommend breastfeeding, despite the difficulties. There is plenty of research if you’d like to school up. But I won’t be the one to tell you, because…
LESSON #2: Don’t Judge
There are too many people giving too much advice and too many women feeling too badly about themselves. Please, for God’s sake, let’s support one another. We are all passionate about our children. We all want the best for them. We are all doing our best for them. Our choices may be different, but our motivation is the same. What works for one will not work for another. Please, be forgiving of yourselves. Please, be compassionate to others. Please, stop telling each other they aren’t doing it right. All we can do is all we can do.
If all of us, as mamas, come together and support one another, think of the mountains we could move. The choices you make aside – formula or breastfeeding, cereal or vegetables, cloth or disposable, daycare or stay-at-home – our children look to us to lay the groundwork for their perspective on the world. We directly have the power to make a cultural shift. If we begin by tearing others down, what example are we setting? Let’s welcome everyone to the table.
MYTH #3: Pumping and Dumping
Ok. So this is more about the actual Pumping part. I’ll get to the Dumping in a minute. Firstly, pumping is not as easy as you might think. In fact, in my case, my body seemed to hate the pump for the first few months I used it. My poor Nugget was being inundated with milk every time she ate, yet I would get next to nothing out of the pump. Our bodies are super smart. Why would I put out if I’m not getting that hormone high from that sweet little bundle resting on my chest? The mechanical whoosh-whoosh-whoosh just doesn’t give you the same warm and fuzzy feeling. This can make going back to work especially tough. I was losing ounces every day as Nugget increased her intake and I pumped less than what she was getting. Back to group I went. Now, armed with new membranes and new tubes for my pump, Mother’s Milk tea, the power of breast massage, videos of my baby on my phone and oatmeal for every snack, I’m starting to win the battle yet again.
So that is why when I hear my not-yet-mom friends say “Come out with us! You can always pump and dump!” I kind of cringe a little. Yeah, I’ve done it once or twice. But the thing is, when you have to work so hard for that milk, the LAST thing you want to do is dump it. In fact, I HAVE cried over spilled milk before: when I accidentally knocked over a freshly pumped, 6 oz bag. There are few things that create more anxiety for a breastfeeding mama than watching the freezer supply dwindle. Now, I’m slowly, slowly adding to my freezer supply… so that sometime in the future, when the next wedding or concert or girls weekend is upon me, I might actually be able to skip one feeding. But even so, I may not feel like sacrificing my liquid gold. Which brings me to…
Lesson #3: Breastfeeding is a Journey
Before I gave birth, I mistakenly thought that once you were past the first few hiccups, breastfeeding was mastered. Now I know better: it is an ongoing adventure. My timeline went a little like this:
Weeks 1-2: Mastered latching and positioning
Weeks 3-4: Mama still in pain – headed to the mama’hood breastfeeding group for help.
Weeks 4-5: Post tongue-tie frenulectomy (you think shots are bad, try watching your baby get her tongue clipped!): WAY less pain, baby relearns to latch and suck using her tongue. Mama and baby still attending group to keep tabs on weight gain and help decrease vasospasm.
Weeks 6-12: Baby gets fussy at breast during every feeding, can’t control milk flow. Not sure if it’s oversupply or fast letdown or both. Back to group to figure out how to help her manage.
Month 3: Baby develops reflux. Back to group when she won’t stop screaming. Mama reduces cow proteins and caffeine in her diet. Baby sees doctor for prescription to help acid reflux. Simultaneously Mama starts intensifying her exercise and wonders if there is a dip in supply. Back to group we go.
Month 4: Mama returns to work. Goes back to group when pumping was netting a loss in ounces during the work week.
Month 5: Baby seems interested in solid foods, and daycare starts suggesting cereal. Mama isn’t sure she wants to start solids until 6 months. Back to the mama’hood for the starting solids class.
….and now here we are. Month five, and new challenges. I’ve come to expect that every stage along this journey is going to be different and difficult in its own way. Yet, each stage will bring new beauty. Now, she laughs when she sees the breast -she gets THAT happy. My heart swells to know I can provide for her in a way that brings us closer, develops a lifelong bond, and keeps her healthy. This is what keeps me going. I also set short term goals for myself: I will try to breastfeed for six months, then re-evaluate. Who knows what will happen then. As I said before…. all I can do is all I can do. And that is probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned from breastfeeding: take each day as it comes. Despite the challenges, breastfeeding my Nugget has been an incredible journey, and one I will never regret.
Saralyn Ward is an award-winning writer, wellness advocate, and mountain mama. She is the founder of The Mama Sagas, writes for several publications and hosts a regular parenting TV segment on Colorado's Everyday Show. When she's not huddled over edits, you're likely to find Saralyn climbing peaks or skiing down them, and reminding herself that the two little girls that call her mom are not the boss of her.