I won’t lie: I went into pregnancy with pretty low expectations of those first few days and weeks as a new mom. I knew I would be totally and completely in love with my new little bundle, that I’d adore that part of new mommyhood. But the process of actually caring for and breastfeeding a newborn sounded a little scary. So I figured I would steel myself. I would assume the worst and be pleasantly surprised to find it not as hard as I told myself it would be.
New mommyhood was about 1000 times harder than I thought it would be. And most of that challenge? Was due to breastfeeding.
Disclaimer time! Breastfeeding can be a sensitive subject, especially for mamas who wanted to breastfeed their littles and weren’t able to for whatever reason, or for mamas who knew they wanted to use formula right from the beginning and felt shamed by the “breast is best” brigade. I get that, so this is a judgment-free zone. While I will always encourage a mother to breastfeed if that is what she desires, how you feed your baby is your decision! This post is simply what I’ve taken away (so far) from my experiences as a new mom breastfeeding my baby: Your mileage may vary!
Breastfeeding is a learned skill. They tell you when you’re pregnant that it’s difficult, that it hurts, that it doesn’t necessarily come easy, all that good stuff. But it’s one thing to understand the idea of something being difficult, or painful, or physically and emotionally draining, and another thing to actually experience it. So while reading a post like this still won’t shed the perfect amount of light on what being a new breastfeeding mommy will be like or feel like (especially since every mama and every baby is different), it will at the very least share what I wish my pre-baby self knew about breastfeeding.
BREASTFEEDING CAN BE A SURPRISINGLY EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE
I went into pregnancy planning to breastfeed my child. And I figured if I couldn’t breastfeed for some reason, I would exclusively pump. My aunt did it and she seemed okay. She liked it, even. So if I needed to, I’d pump. No big deal. Breast milk is breast milk. It doesn’t matter how baby gets it.
And while yes, ultimately what is most important is that baby gets fed, I found my desire to breastfeed to be a surprisingly emotional thing. My baby had a terrible latch. As in, she couldn’t latch by herself at all. I was given a nipple shield in the hospital and wearing that shield was the only way I could get her to take milk from me. The first few days my nipples were cracked and sore and bleeding. After a while though, things got better, but the nipple shield seemed to be causing problems. My baby was leaking milk everywhere, was sucking in air and having really painful gas, and since she would only latch on the shield, I was basically a slave to it. After the 3000th time repositioning the shield and fighting to keep it on at 2am (those baby hands really like to get in the way), I was ready to toss the shield in the trash and exclusively pump.
As exasperated as I was, the thought of exclusively pumping was sort of devastating. It really shouldn’t have been, but it was. It made me feel like a failure even though I KNEW in my rational mind that couldn’t be further from the truth! I just wanted to feed my baby the way I wanted to feed my baby, the way I was hoping to feed my baby, and not being able to produced emotions I wasn’t expecting. In the end, I kept with the nipple shield, emotions be damned. That decision may not be the right one for everyone, but it was definitely the right one for us.
BEWARE OF ENGORGEMENT
When my milk came in the evening of day 2/morning of day 3, I thought I was going to burst. It was like having boulders hang from my chest and it hurt. I knew it was normal to be a little engorged at first, what with the tiny size of a newborn tummy, so I thought if anything the engorgement was a good sign–more milk for baby later, right?
By the time we got home from the hospital I thought that things were getting better. The engorgement seemed not so bad. My breasts were more firm than not, but I thought that was just what milk-making breasts felt like. How was I supposed to know any different?
On the second day of being home from the hospital with baby, I found myself buried under the covers with a bad case of the chills and a day later my OB diagnosed me with mastitis. The next 10 days were a blur of antibiotics and cabbage leaves and painful breast compressions and warm rags. It was NOT fun. But it doesn’t have to happen to you! Keep your breasts “emptied” regularly and it shouldn’t happen at all, but if you start to feel chills or develop a fever with no other symptoms, go to your doctor right away, as mastitis can turn serious very quickly (even within a matter of say five hours!).
PUMPING IS NOT INTUITIVE
I thought it would be a matter of just putting the shield on and hitting the power switch, but pumping was a little more complicated. First of all, I didn’t have the right breast shield size and had to buy one that fits better. The trick is to have it go right around the nipple–any bigger and too much of the areola is pulled into the shield, and any smaller will result in painful pinching. Neither are effective. I recommend getting your breast pump before baby arrives and figure out your shield size beforehand so you’re not wandering around Babies R Us engorged and half asleep (like me).
Some people’s breasts don’t respond well to a pump, and sometimes hand massaging before or during pumping can help with this. After a while, your body may get more acclimated to the pump and respond better. Each pump will have its own set of knobs and buttons, and sometimes you may find that different settings work better for you. For a while, I was only able to get milk out under the “letdown” setting (the setting that mimics the suckling a baby does to stimulate the initial release of milk), but after a while that changed.
Perhaps most important, don’t assume that what you pump out is what your baby takes out of you when nursing. A healthy baby with normal oral anatomy will ALWAYS remove breast milk more efficiently than a pump. You may not pump a lot of milk at first, but this does NOT mean your supply is low. The only reliable indicator that baby is getting enough is if he/she has plenty of wet and dirty diapers.
If you’re not sure what pump to buy and may need to pump to build a stash for going back to work, I highly recommend the Spectra S2 (based on the recommendations of friends who have used it) and the Medela Pump In Style Advanced (based on my personal experience). Medela also makes a high quality hand pump that is good to have for when you just need a few ounces of milk or to relieve the pressure of engorgement.
NOT ALL IBCLCS ARE CREATED EQUAL
If you have any concerns about breastfeeding, I HIGHLY recommend seeing a lactation consultant, specifically an IBCLC or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. And if you don’t get the answers you need or still have trouble, see a different lactation consultant! When I was in the hospital and baby was having trouble latching on, I met with two different IBCLCs on two different occasions and neither were very helpful. Although they were able to show me how to better position myself to breastfeed, they did not check baby for any oral abnormalities that might cause a poor latch and simply told me to hold baby against my breast more firmly (something that, although it fortunately did not hurt baby, I nonetheless regret doing knowing what I know now).
After a couple weeks of struggling with the nipple shield at home, I decided to try my luck with a new IBCLC. I found a local center that could get me an appointment quickly and met with the most WONDERFUL consultant I could have hoped for! She sat with me and baby for two hours, observed us feeding, offered more tips on how to encourage a good latch (including the laid back breastfeeding position and bathing with baby skin to skin) as well as general tips like tickling behind baby’s ear and under her chin to wake her when she dozes off and the colic hold for relieving gas.
Perhaps the most valuable thing our IBCLC did for me, however, was identify that baby had a tongue and lip tie.
TONGUE AND LIP TIES ARE REAL, AND THEY AFFECT BABIES MORE THAN YOU MIGHT THINK
I’d vaguely heard of ties before since one of my good friends mentioned her baby had one, but I had no idea to think to look for one or any understanding of the issues they can cause. I have so much to say about tongue and lip ties after having to breastfeed through them that it’s a topic that is going to have to get its own post (coming soon!). But for now, suffice it to say tongue and lip ties are real, not a “fad” as some may have you believe. With the advent of formula and the relative ease of giving baby a bottle, most babies with ties are never diagnosed. Since ties fall on a spectrum, some babies with ties never need revision if mom is comfortable bottle feeding (or can stand the pain of a shallow latch, the frustration of a nipple shield, and/or the length of an inefficient feed), while other babies have ties so severe they can take neither a bottle nor the breast. These babies are at risk for failure to thrive and revision may be necessary.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned about ties, however, is that it is CRITICAL your baby is evaluated by a preferred provider, or at the very least someone in your area with a proven track record of properly diagnosing and revising ties. Again, with the advent and rise of formula and bottle feeding, teaching pediatricians to properly evaluate ties fell out of fashion. Your average pediatrician (although he/she may tell you he/she knows what to look for) doesn’t actually know what to look for. I learned this the hard way.
You can read my full-length post on tongue and lip ties here, but for now, if you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms (this is not a comprehensive list), you may want to have baby evaluated by a preferred provider (you can see the complete list of preferred providers here):
- A clicking sound (“tch tch tch”) while sucking
- A shallow latch that may or may not be painful
- Cracked or bleeding nipples after more than a week or two of breastfeeding
- Painful gas/colic
- It taking a long time (more than 30 minutes a breast) for baby to soften the breast
- Baby constantly falls asleep after nursing for only a few minutes
- A quivering tongue vibration when baby feeds
“LOW SUPPLY” ISN’T ALWAYS LOW SUPPLY
I’ll repeat this: the most reliable indicator that baby isn’t getting enough milk is wet and dirty diapers. Not how much you are able to pump out, not how often baby feeds, not by how full your breasts feel, not by how much baby is crying, not by how big or small your breasts are, not by how much you’re leaking or not leaking, not by any of those things. If you are committed to breastfeeding but think you may be having issues with low supply, don’t feel like you need to automatically jump to using formula! In fact supplementing with formula can, in some circumstances, lower a supply that wasn’t actually low to begin with!
OVERSUPPLY CAN BE JUST AS PROBLEMATIC AS LOW SUPPLY
You wouldn’t think it, but it’s true. Oversupply is often associated with a fast letdown (a fast milk ejection reflex–think milk streaming from your nips and spraying baby in the face), which can cause baby to gulp and gasp while drinking. This becomes an issue later, when baby develops bad gas pains due to swallowing too much air while feeding. They say breastfed babies don’t need to burp as much, but my princess could rival a grown man with her burps! We ended up purchasing the Rock n Play Sleeper to help, since the incline helps ease gas discomfort.
Oversupply can also result in foremilk/hindmilk imbalance, which can cause green foamy frothy bowel movements and more acidic stool. You can help avoid this imbalance by making sure baby has completely softened one breast before offering the other and by working with a lactation consultant to diagnose the problem, since symptoms of oversupply can also be symptoms of other issues. Always be certain you have oversupply before working to actively lower your supply, and avoid lowering your supply before your milk supply has been fully regulated to meet baby’s needs (this doesn’t usually happen for some time after birth). For more information on oversupply, check out kellymom.com, which is my favorite breastfeeding resource!
HAVE THE RIGHT TOOLS
In addition to having a good breast pump and a helpful IBCLC, having the right products can be incredibly helpful for breastfeeding and postpartum generally. I would have been lost without my nipple cream, which was an absolutely must have and (in my biased opinion) probably the best on the market:
I HIGHLY recommend Earth Mama Angel Baby Organics — their complete line for breastfeeding mothers as well as their products for moms and babies (including their baby bottom balm and their herbal teas to improve low supply and oversupply). I like to gift these to all my new mama friends because they’re just that awesome and safe for baby.
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