Before I ever tried it, my understanding of breastfeeding was somewhat vague. I knew that I was breastfed as a baby. I knew that when I became a mother I wanted to breastfeed my babies as well. Before my pregnancy, I had heard that breastmilk was incredibly healthy and beneficial for newborns and that it had many health benefits for mothers too. Never did I hear details, but the general perception I had was it was a good thing to do for your children and that, except for in special cases, mothers should breastfeed their newborns.
This idea was impressed upon me even more strongly when I became pregnant with my first baby. I seemed to hear positive things about breastfeeding everywhere I turned. My doctor advised me that breastmilk was a great way to pass my antibodies to my baby. I heard from a pregnancy app that breastmilk was the only thing your baby needed for the first 6 months of his or her life because it was a “perfect food.”
More than anything, I heard positive reports from experienced who had successfully breastfed their children. Some women told me that it was an incredible bonding experience and that it helped them get rid of the weight they gained while pregnant. Other women stressed how much more convenient it was compared to bottle feeding. Some just emphasized to me how healthy it was to do overall.
All of this reinforced my decision to breastfeed. In fact, after every conversation I had, I felt confident that I would be really great at it!
3 breastfeeding tips I heard over and over – and 3 things I wish I heard instead.
While I understand now that these experienced moms were trying to be encouraging, I wish I had asked them for details about their initial attempts at nursing. Because nothing I heard came close to preparing me for the struggle I would come to face with breastfeeding. It left me feeling somewhat misled and alone. It turns out that many new moms face the same struggles I did.
While many were able to overcome the initial struggles, I discovered that women typically don’t discuss the hardships breastfeeding can present. Even moms who tried to breastfeed but were unsuccessful for one reason or another were not forthcoming with stories of their trials. And while I understand that breastfeeding advocates would never want to discourage moms-to-be from breastfeeding, it seems to me that a more honest discussion about how hard it can be and real advice on how to overcome the hardships would be beneficial for all new mamas.
Of all the pro-breastfeeding remarks I heard, 3 phrases seemed to be repeated many times to me. Here is a list of those 3 things, along with what I think are the most helpful breastfeeding tips any mom could hear:
1 . What I heard: “It’s the most natural thing.”
The problem with saying that something is natural is that there is an implication that it must be easy; at least that is the way I interpreted it when I was pregnant the first time. One of the very first breastfeeding tips I heard from many seasoned mothers was that “breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world, all mammals on earth do it!”
In my naivety, I thought that meant that the moment I gave birth, two beautiful streams of milk would come cascading out of my mammaries, and both my child and I would obviously know what to do.
I never thought in a million years that I would have an issue. It was going to come NATURALLY to me. I took my predisposed ability to breastfeed for granted. When a breastfeeding class was offered to me as one of the childbirth prep courses by my physician’s office, I quickly disregarded it. After all, I told myself if cats and monkeys and women throughout the history of our species could successfully navigate it, I certainly can figure it out.
What I wish I heard: “It might not come naturally to you, and that’s okay.”
I was completely shocked when shortly after giving birth to my son, I discovered that my nipples were not ideal for latching. In fact, my poor little guy had a very hard time finding something to latch on to, given that my nipples were somewhat flat. I remember feeling horrified as the nurse at the hospital took a look at me fumbling as I tried to guide my baby’s mouth to where I was guessing it should go and asked, “Did you take a breastfeeding class?”
“No,” I replied, sinking into my regret and realization that all of my assumptions about how simple this was going to be were sadly misguided. “I’ll have the lactation consultant come and see you in the morning,” she said and left me there to continue fumbling, tears welling and panic rising.
The truth is while some women may not have as hard of a time as others learning how to breastfeed, it is a learned skill. No one gets into a car for the first time and knows instinctively how to operate it, even though it may seem easy enough to do before you try, I just step on the gas, and steer with the wheel, right?
I am so grateful that the hospital where my son was born offered lactation consultant services because I truly feel that without the advice of the two brilliant patient consultants who helped me and introduced me to some of the best breastfeeding tips, I would have stopped trying. During the first consultation I had, the consultant literally milked colostrum (the sticky, first milk your body produces after giving birth) out of my boob and caught it in a tiny vial for my son to drink. She showed me different latching and holding techniques and encouraged me to try different styles until we had one that worked.
A Saving Grace
Most importantly, she gave me a nipple shield, which is a thin, soft piece of plastic that goes over your own nipple and gives your child something significant to latch on to. Nipple shields, something I had never heard of before that day, saved me. For the next six months or so, the only way I could nurse was using a nipple shield, something our pediatrician reassured me was totally fine and normal for some women.
2 . What I heard: “Breast is Best!”
Of all of the breastfeeding tips I was told, this was the overriding mantra of all breastfeeding advocates. I heard it from family members, co-workers, and medical professionals, it was even embroidered on the little takeaway bag given to me at the hospital. And from a biological standpoint, it’s true. Breast milk is the most nutritious first food to give your baby. It’s been researched and proven that not only is breastmilk a miracle elixir with whole nutrition for your new child, but breastfeeding may also be connected to lower rates of diabetes, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer for mothers. It helps babies grow and develop while protecting them from illnesses, among many other things.
It’s amazing. It’s what women’s bodies are made for. WE GET IT. The issue I have with this sentiment isn’t so much that it isn’t a valid point. It’s that it comes without any advice, and usually, a tinge of judgment and superiority. Because if “breast is best,” then formula feeding is “less than best” or “not the best” thing for your child.
What I wish I heard: “Breastmilk is really good for your baby, but breastfeeding can be a challenge.”
Here’s my story;
Instead of subliminally pushing the idea that not breastfeeding your baby means you’re doing what’s less than best, I wish I would have heard honest recounts of women’s trials and triumphs while learning to breastfeed. Because learning to breastfeed was HARD. For me, it was much more challenging than giving birth itself.
Because my son’s birth was induced and managed with an epidural and pain medication, it was also much more painful than childbirth for me. I hadn’t realized (and hadn’t heard) before trying it that breastfeeding would be so physically painful. My nipples chapped, cracked, and bled (if this is you, make sure to get a good nipple cream). If I didn’t feed my baby within 3 hours, my breasts became engorged and ached.
I bought a breast pump without consulting anyone who had ever used one before. It was a no-good, lousy pump that pulled and ripped my skin off! That, topped with a 3 a.m. trip to the triage emergency room due to an infection called mastitis I developed in my left breast one week into my son’s life, left me in agonizing tears daily.
But more than the physical pain, I felt emotional torture every time I thought I was failing at successfully doing what was “BEST” for my new, beautiful baby. Even with the lactation consultant’s help, the first month of breastfeeding was so grueling. I didn’t produce as much milk as I thought I would. My son would get frustrated, pull away and cry. He always seemed hungry and never satisfied. I was exhausted and so discouraged.
Despite all of this, I rarely confided in other women for breastfeeding tips during this time. Because wasn’t this supposed to be natural to me? Why didn’t anyone mention that it would be this hard?
3 . What I heard: “I’m disappointed in my Daughter/ Granddaughter/
Sister/ Friend, who is choosing not to breastfeed.”
Unfortunately, this was something I heard more than once, (more than twice) from women I knew while I was pregnant. They would usually ask me if I was planning on breastfeeding. When I told them yes, they would let out a big sigh of relief and confide in me. They would tell me that someone close to them was currently not breastfeeding their child, and how unfortunate they thought that was.
Before I gave birth, all I could do was agree with them. I had no knowledge of the struggles or situations these women might be facing. In my oblivious, pregnant state, breastfeeding was the clear choice to make, and I couldn’t understand why someone would make an alternate choice.
What I wish I heard: “Whatever happens on your breastfeeding journey, I support you!”
After struggling during my first month of breastfeeding, I thought about other mammas. It broke my heart to think about new mamas who were “disappointing” their Mothers/ Sisters/Grandmothers/Friends by not breastfeeding. I knew how hard it might have been for them. It also made me feel like I shouldn’t confide in women. I wondered if they had been naturally better at breastfeeding than I was. I wondered if I was less womanly, or, even worse, less motherly.
The Reality ALL Mamas Should Know
What new mothers really need, more than anything, is the unwavering support of their fellow women, especially their fellow mothers. In many cases, help doesn’t come without specifically seeking it out. Sadly, many new moms are left on their own to attempt to figure it all out. In truth, there are many tools and resources to overcome any breastfeeding obstacle. However, I believe the very, very best thing you can give your new baby is a healthy and confident mama.
I am proud to say that I was able to successfully breastfeed, but I did struggle, often in silence. I wanted it to appear as if I totally knew what I was doing. In reality, I should have been seeking aid and advice. Now I know that there are unlimited tips and tricks when it comes to all things breastfeeding. I also understand why expert moms want to encourage rookie mamas to breastfeed because it really is incredible!
It would have been helpful to understand that learning to breastfeed can be quite a difficult journey at first. But, most importantly, to know that new mamas are not alone.
About the Author:
Sophie Nolan is a San Francisco-based mom of two small kids. Read more from her at http://thesfmama.com/
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