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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.
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.
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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.
Disclaimer: The information found in this post, on this blog, and within any breastfeeding resources created by Mom Makes Joy is not a substitute for advice or in-person assessment given by an appropriately credentialed healthcare or lactation professional. Take all concerns to your provider.
SECRET #1: 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 yet when it came down to it, 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 do so produced emotions I wasn’t expecting.
In the end, I decided to fight for my breastfeeding relationship, even when people suggested I would be happier if I quit. And I’m glad I did.
Pushing forward was the right decision for me, and only I could make that decision. Sometimes I wondered if maybe I was “wrong” for wanting to breastfeed so badly, but I learned that there is nothing wrong with having feeding preferences. They aren’t a judgment on other moms, just preferences.
I also learned that breastfeeding grief is real. And it hurts. But it’s okay to feel it, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes it’s what motivates us to keep going. And sometimes knowing that we did everything we could gives us the peace we need to move forward.
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SECRET #2: 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 and can hurt your supply.
Be advised that when your milk comes in (which can happen anytime from 2-5 days post birth) it’s normal for your breasts to feel engorged, since the tissues swell. Having a bit of an oversupply at first is normal, since the body is still learning how much milk to produce. Eventually your supply will naturally regulate to meet baby’s needs. You can learn more about what’s normal (and what’s not) in The Tired Mom’s Guide to Breastfeeding!
SECRET #3: PUMPING MAY NOT BE 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, and you need a shield that fits correctly to be able to pump the most milk. 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, but 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 and is gaining weight.
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 rave 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. This one–the Haakaa–is also well-liked because it has only one part to wash, and you can use it to catch/draw out milk that leaks out the breast baby isn’t nursing on.
NEVER RUN OUT OF
Everything you need to know about pumping and creating your freezer stash is all right here!
SECRET #4: 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.
Be advised: Not everyone who calls themselves a “lactation consultant” or “lactation counselor” or “lactation nurse” is an IBCLC. Just because a nurse works on the L&D floor does not necessarily mean she has lactation training. Certified Lactation Counselors or Certified Lactation Education Counselors may provide appropriate assistance if you are experiencing normal, uncomplicated breastfeeding issues. The IBCLC is considered the “gold standard” and is the appropriate choice for more complicated issues (e.g. tongue ties, low supply, medically fragile or premature babies, etc.)
When I was in the hospital and baby was having trouble latching on, I met with two different IBCLCs on two different occasions. Neither were what I needed. 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.
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, how to encourage baby to suckle, and how to hold baby to best relieve gas pains.
Perhaps the most valuable thing our IBCLC did for me, however, was identify that baby had a tongue and lip tie.
SECRET #5: 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 I gave the topic its own post, so be sure to check it out! This book is also a great resource.
For now, suffice it to say that with the advent of formula and bottles, most babies with ties are never diagnosed. Instead, many issues caused by ties are blamed on reflux, colic, gas, and sometimes dairy sensitivity. Tied babies can latch on a bottle much easier than the breast, so ties on bottle-bed babies are often missed completely. Since ties fall on a spectrum, not all ties cause all problems, so they can be very difficult to diagnose. Some babies have mild gas and an imperfect latch, while other babies have ties so severe they can take neither a bottle nor the breast and are at risk for failure to thrive.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned about ties, however, is that if you think ties are interfering with your ability to nurse from the breast, 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. The unfortunate truth is that your average pediatrician, pediatric dentist, or ENT–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.
SECRET #6: “LOW SUPPLY” ISN’T ALWAYS LOW SUPPLY
I’ll repeat this: the only reliable indicator that baby isn’t getting enough milk is weight gain and wet/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 or how hungry baby “seems,” 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. If you are concerned about supply issues, I’d encourage you to seek support from an IBCLC or reputable breastfeeding support organization like Breastfeeding USA.
SECRET #7: 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 (UPDATE: As of 2019, the Rock n Play Sleeper has been recalled).
Oversupply can also result in foremilk/hindmilk imbalance, which then causes 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 don’t worry! This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the milk your body is making!)
If you think you have oversupply, work with a lactation consultant to diagnose the problem before taking steps to lower your supply. Your IBCLC will help you be able to rule out other issues causing your symptoms (including ties) and can help safely reduce your supply if needed so you can avoid clogged ducts and mastitis. 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 for the first couple days.
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