The breastfeeding learning curve is steep. A new mother must learn to read her baby’s hunger cues and her body’s own signals. Both mother and baby must figure out the shared mechanics. All of this is set against a backdrop of little sleep, the other work of caring for a newborn, and the pressure to establish a nursing relationship before that physiological window closes. It’s a recipe for frustration and (let’s be honest) tears.
After the shock-and-awe of the first few weeks, I happily nursed my daughter until she self-weaned at 17 months. My son is going strong at 15 months. I’d like to share a few things I learned along the way, in the hopes they help you on your own journey.
The obligatory caveats. First, if breastfeeding is not the right choice for you, it’s not my place to convince you otherwise. My hat is off to every mother who considers her situation and decides what is best for her, her baby, and her family–regardless of what that decision is. Second, I have no formal training and am not a lactation expert (even in my own mind). The only wisdom I have comes from my own experience and observations. Your mileage may vary and probably will. Finally, I was blessed to have a relatively easy time nursing, and my perspective developed accordingly. If you or your baby has a health condition or other impediment that makes breastfeeding more challenging, please consider getting assistance from a professional. Your doctor, your delivery-hospital’s lactation consultant, or the La Leche League International website are good places to start.
For those readers who have chosen to nurse (or who are at least lacto-curious), I gently offer five “secrets” to my own humble success. [hr]
Secret the First: You Have to be Pro-lactive in the Hospital.
Your battle to succeed at breastfeeding begins as soon as your baby is delivered. The more you can anticipate the challenges of those earliest days, the better you will be prepared to meet them. The care I received in the Mother/Baby Unit was outstanding. However, I have experienced and observed a few hospital practices that may compromise your nursing relationship. I share them with you here on the basis that “forewarned is forearmed.”
In the hospital, your baby may be taken from you for hours at a time. Even healthy newborns need to be bathed, examined, and given certain tests in the central nursery. Baby boys may be taken for circumcision. My two children served time under a bili light for jaundice and in an incubator to regulate body temperature. In a busy hospital, a baby taken for non-urgent care may spend hours in the nursery waiting to be processed. If his time away from you overlaps with a feeding, he may be given formula. That’s hardly the end of the world, but it does mean a missed opportunity for him to get breastmilk and for you to get coaching from the staff during a nursing session. To the extent possible, try to keep your baby with you. Don’t be afraid to call for his whereabouts if a routine separation takes an inordinate amount of time.
Do not assume that you will see a lactation consultant during your postpartum stay. She may not be scheduled to work the shifts that fall immediately after your delivery. Even if she is, she may be busy working with other mothers and babies. Although nursing is a steep learning curve for everyone, babies born with cleft palates, Down syndrome, or other conditions face special challenges. They will be the lactation consultant’s priority. So, learn as much as you can about positioning, latching, and other mechanics before you give birth. If you have a friend or relative who has nursed successfully, ask her in advance to come work with you in the hospital. Even if your relationship has not yet achieved hospital-visit closeness, she likely will be flattered and happy to help.
While I’m on the subject of visitors, I have to say this: You. Are. Not. A. Hostess. You are a new mother. Family and friends will flock to the hospital, excited to congratulate you and kiss the new little bundle. Come feeding time, you will need to have your equipment fully exposed so that you, your baby, and anyone helping you can see what is going on. This cannot happen with your in-laws in the room. Don’t be afraid to kick them out. When your baby starts rooting, smacking, or chewing his fist, he needs to eat. If you miss this window, he may fall asleep or get so worked up that he’s unable to latch successfully. The baby and your nursing relationship are more important than social niceties. Husbands and nurses are great for giving firm but gentle instructions that well-wishers must hang out in the waiting room until the feeding session is over.
Mother/Baby Unit nurses work tirelessly to ensure their patients are healthy, comfortable, and well-cared for. At times, their well-intentioned efforts come at the expense of your moving along the breastfeeding curve. For example, even if you’ve decided to have your baby room-in with you, your nurse might suggest he be removed to the central nursery at night so you can sleep. This might be the right course for you. In making the decision, though, consider that you need to be learning to read your baby’s hunger cues. If your baby is in the nursery for hours at a stretch and getting fed without your seeing his cues, it may take you longer to recognize those subtle early signs.
When my first child was learning to breastfeed (about 24 hours after delivery), my nurse suggested that we put some formula on my skin “to get the baby interested.” Although I know she did not mean it to, her advice carried the subtle message that my baby’s and my physiology and instincts were inadequate and that commercial formula needed to be in our toolkits. This message was reinforced on discharge, when we were given a New Baby Nutrition Kit “Designed for Breastfeeding Moms.” It was provided by Gerber. I know many nursing mothers are happy to receive the free formula, for their own back-up use or to pass along to family and friends. Please remember that freebies are given out of profit-motive, not detached and disinterested corporate generosity. If you buy into the notion that you cannot breastfeed without commercial “help,” you’ve started to doubt the natural process. When you get frustrated during those first early days (and you will), that free bottle of formula that carries the hospital imprimatur can look mighty inviting. Research shows that these free formula samples tend to reduce breastfeeding outcomes. Both the Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics caution against the effects of formula advertising through hospitals and clinicians. Try to put the swag in perspective, and remember that absent special circumstances, you and your baby can do just fine without it. [hr]
Secret the Second: Be Prepared for Skepticism.
Breastfeeding rates have gone up and down over the last century. In the 1930’s, doctors belittled human milk as “nothing…sacred.” Through the 1970s, on doctors’ advice, mothers supplemented breast milk with cows’ milk, weaned their infants after a few weeks or months, and, increasingly, did not breastfeed at all. By 1971, breastfeeding had reached an all-time low in the United States with only 24 percent of mothers trying it even once before leaving the hospital. The feminist movement rekindled some interest in the late 1970s, but rates fell again between 1984 and 1989. You can see my sources and learn more here. Happily, 76.9 percent of women who gave birth in 2012 tried breastfeeding at least once, and 36 percent were exclusively breastfeeding their babies at six months.
The current generation is hipper to breastfeeding than our recent predecessors, so why do I warn about skeptics? Because based on the data, our own mothers were giving birth when breastfeeding rates were comparatively low. Even if–like me–you are a child of the late 70s, unless your mother participated in or was influenced by the feminist revolution, she may not have nursed you. To women whose children did “just fine” with formula, breastfeeding can seem vaguely weird. A new grandmother who used bottles may think a baby learning to latch just doesn’t like to nurse. From using formula, she may be accustomed to newborns going for longer stretches between feedings. At each bottle feeding, she knew how much her baby was eating (not possible with the breast). And, she likely has fond memories of bottle-feeding her own sweet babies and longs for the chance to do the same with her grandchildren. To such a grandmother, breastfeeding may seem to have a lot of downsides. Motivated only by love, she might try to convince her daughter to give up on breastfeeding or otherwise suggest that it’s not the best choice. Dr. Jane Grassley says it well.
Like us, our husbands (and their siblings) may not have been breastfed, so it’s possible yours has never seen a mother/baby duo in the nursing groove. Those first days or weeks after your baby is born, your husband will see his wife frustrated and his child crying and hungry. Men fix problems, and a ready solution to the problem he’s witnessing is to give the baby formula. Unless he’s as committed to your breastfeeding as you are (or at least has the good sense to let you govern this decision), you may find yourself having to convince him to stay the course even as you are trying to convince yourself. Your husband also might be ambivalent about what the baby’s priority claim on your body means for him, or how the “exposure” of nursing in public reflects on you.
It’s hard to ignore input from your mother and husband. In fact, those two people have a significant impact on the mother’s commitment to and ultimate success in breastfeeding. Knowing that, have candid discussions with both of them. Let them know that breastfeeding is important to you and that you need their support to succeed. Find out what their concerns are and find ways to address them. With such a sensitive and personal topic, criticism often is subtle. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so be as forthright as you can and bring the discussion out into the open.
Secret the Third: That Show You’re Putting On? It’s Not as Titillating as You Think.
Have you seen my favorite Luvs commercial? It opens with a bedraggled first-time mother hunched in a restaurant corner nervously trying to feed a frustrated baby under a nursing cover. With her second child, she has evolved into a confident at-the-table nurser who–despite her lack of a drape–is showing far less skin than your average spring-breaker.
The commercial resonates with me. When my first child was a newborn, I was so self-conscious about nursing in public (including in front of my grandmother, who changed my diapers and breastfed her own five children) that I brought bottles of expressed milk everywhere I went just in case I couldn’t find a suitably private place to feed my baby.
My definition of “suitably private” has changed a lot.
If you practice in front of a mirror, you’ll see that with good nursing form, your baby’s head and torso cover almost all of your exposed skin. Experiment with different types of shirts, including those that you can unbutton or lift from the bottom to keep your upper chest fully covered. Between your baby and your clothing, you might be covered enough to feel comfortable in a restaurant booth or an uncrowded section of the mall. If you need a little more coverage, a burp cloth or restaurant napkin draped across your décolletage may be sufficient. Bottom line: it’s possible to maintain your modesty without having to schlepp a heat-trapping drape or wrestle with a baby who hates when you use it. I’ve come to realize that nursing cover or no nursing cover, it’s pretty clear what you are doing. A cover may even draw more attention to the act, as an uncovered nursing baby can be indistinguishable from one who is sleeping. Consider retiring yours.
If you’re not ready to invite the world to the show (such as it is), you still aren’t resigned to nursing in the restroom. Baby Gap, Babies R Us, and other stores have nursing mothers’ rooms. You can ask a clerk in an uncrowded clothing store to borrow a fitting room. Your car is always an option. By this point, I am pretty much “anywhere, anytime,” and I literally never have had a problem with people leering or making critical remarks.
I was pretty proud of the chutzpah I had developed until I observed the Greatest Nursing Mother of All Time. She was in the HEB at I-10 and DeZavala, pushing her cart, as calm as you please. Her baby was laying on that little tray that sits right behind the handle of some large shopping carts. He was under a nursing cover, but there was no denying that she was actively breastfeeding while browsing housewares. She is a goddess.
I doubt I’ll ever make it to her level, but the lesson she inspires stands: breastfeeding is not shameful, or sexual, or scatological. The more mothers who approach it matter-of-factly, the more common and comfortable it will become for all.
Secret the Fourth: Learn the Lost Art of Manual Expression.
Complete the sentence:
I would hate pumping less if:
(a) It didn’t take so long.
(b) I got more output.
(c) It weren’t so noisy.
(d) I didn’t have to lug my pump everywhere.
(e) All of the above.
In my experience, manual expression is superior to pumping in all respects. Once you have it mastered (which doesn’t take much practice), it’s faster. Even when I did use a pump, I could always get a few extra ounces manually after the pump “ran dry.” It makes no noise at all, which helps you be discreet at the office or in other semi-public places. And, it takes no equipment other than a clean container and what the good Lord gave you. With minimal effort, you can figure it out on your own. If you want instructions, look here or check out the dozens of instructional videos on YouTube.
I do have one tip for mamas who prefer to use a pump. If you are pumping multiple times a day, consider saving time by storing the pump parts in the refrigerator after use. If you rinse them off and store them in the ‘fridge, you may find that you only need to clean them thoroughly at the end of the day, not after each session. [hr]
Secret the Fifth: It Gets Easier.
The human race would have died out long ago if nursing were as hard on Day 20 as it is on Day 1. Trust me when I say, it gets easier. After a couple weeks, your baby will be able to latch consistently, on the first try. It’s a revelation. Soon, he will be able to hold his own head in position. Your quality of life will improve immeasurably. You’ll have an entire hand free to hold a book, your phone, or the remote control. Look, I know I’m supposed to spend every nursing session gazing beatifically at my precious child, but let’s be honest. Those DVR’d episodes of Real Housewives aren’t going to watch themselves. There will come a day–sooner than you think–when your baby can get himself into position and hold himself there until he is finished. On this day, the lazy (or exhausted) among you will rejoice.
Breastfeeding can be so, so hard at the beginning. With a neonate, it’s way more challenging then using a bottle. But we nursing mothers get our just desserts. Once you and your baby hit your stride, so much about baby care becomes easier. You never have to worry about lugging around bottles or food for your baby. His diapers stink less. You have a virtually foolproof way to comfort your crying child. If you think your baby might be hungry but aren’t sure, it takes two seconds (without even getting up from the sofa) to test your hypothesis. Pregnancy weight will melt away, even as you eat like a longshoreman. And, my personal favorite: you have a foolproof excuse to take a break from any stressful or tiresome event. At that noisy family gathering, who can challenge your decision to duck into a quiet side room to “feed the baby”? No one. That’s who.
I learned these five “secrets” from my own experience of nursing two children. If you choose to breastfeed, you likely have or will discover your own special tricks. If you’re comfortable sharing a nursing “secret” of your own, please post in the comments below.
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