Now that I find myself on the verge of becoming a mother of four, I am reflecting on what I’ve learned so far on my motherhood journey. Being in a “birth month” group on Facebook for the first time, I see the anxious and hopeful and anxiously hopeful posts of moms pregnant with their first child, and I hark back to my time as a parenting newbie. So, now that I’ve breastfed two babies and am hoping to go on to the new challenge of breastfeeding twins, what do I want a first-time mom to know about the boob?
If you do not plan to or cannot breastfeed, don’t think for a moment I somehow judge you as inferior. Nope. No way. My only desire as a breastfeeding advocate is that women who wish to breastfeed be supported to the fullest extent. I also hope that there aren’t women out there who choose not to breastfeed because of misconceptions or because they are influenced by financial, institutional, societal or familial pressures.
Whether you ultimately choose to breastfeed or not, at the very least I want you to have all the information available to fully consider both options.
Why did I want to breastfeed?
It never crossed my mind not to breastfeed, and I would say that was due to three factors. One was that it was familiar to me. I knew my mother had breastfed me and my brother. More recently I had seen my aunt breastfeed her two children through to toddlerhood. Two was that it seemed pretty easy compared to getting up and warming bottles all the time. Having babysat a lot of children who took bottles, the idea of not having to mix formula and wash bottles seemed appealing. Three was that it seemed like a good choice from an economical and environmental standpoint.
I also had the advantage of knowing that a year’s maternity leave lay ahead of me. Were I to know I would be returning to the workforce in a mere six weeks (hello, American super moms!), I don’t know that I would’ve had the fortitude to plan for a six-week breastfeeding stint followed by months of full-time, on-the-job pumping.
What do I wish I knew back then?
When I look back at my plan to breastfeed my firstborn, I realize I was startlingly naïve. I didn’t have a backup plan. I didn’t have a clue about lactation consultants or tongue ties or low supply or what to do if baby wasn’t putting on weight or if breastfeeding hurt. I didn’t have formula at home “just in case.” I just figured: I’ll breastfeed.
LUCKILY, it actually was as simple as that. My son latched on and started suckling seconds after birth, and while I had a few blebs, those were mere blips on the radar of an otherwise idyllic nursing experience that lasted until part-way through my second pregnancy.
From the new mothers in my entourage, however, I came to learn that it isn’t always that easy and that help exists if you know where to ask for it. I also learned how much emotional stress is caused by breastfeeding issues in those first few (already very stressful) weeks. If I had experienced extreme pain while nursing or if my baby had failed to gain weight, I would’ve had absolutely no clue where to turn, and I regret not having built myself a little support net prior to birth.
Since I can only guess what it will be like to nurse twins, I am making sure I have a local lactation consultant on standby for my panicked phone calls as well as the reassurance of my midwife that she will be there to support me. For women without a midwife or doula, postpartum care CAN be somewhat lacking, including breastfeeding support. Advocate for yourself. Many hospitals have lactation consultants on staff, but you may have to ask to meet with them.
There are also doctors that specialize in breastfeeding. Find out who they are in your area. Of the many women in my entourage who have experienced breastfeeding issues, the primary cause has been a lip or tongue tie. I had no idea that this was even a thing when my son was born, so it would’ve never occurred to me to pursue it as a cause of breastfeeding discomfort. You can have your care provider check at birth for I recommend reading my friend The Monarch Mommy’s post about the late diagnosis of her son’s tongue tie.
One thing that surprised me about breastfeeding was the rush of emotion I would feel when baby would first latch. (I experienced this with both of my kids.) If you’ve read Harry Potter, you’ll know how the presence of the Dementors of Azkaban is described as sucking out all the joy and hope from the air. I know that sounds awful, but I remember feeling overwhelming sadness at the start of many of my first nursing sessions.
Because of my experience with anxiety and depression in the past, I have a lot of tools for coping with these distressing emotions. I just want other moms to know that it is very normal to have negative emotions towards breastfeeding, which are oftentimes completely involuntary and contrary to what you might feel in an objective mindset. A mild case of the baby blues is very normal, but so are postpartum anxiety and depression. Just like knowing where to find nursing support, know ahead of time how to recognize the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD) and where to turn for support. I recommend reading my good friend Dani’s post about her struggles with PPD.
What about breastfeeding when I’m not at home?
I would also like to insist that you breastfeed where you are most comfortable breastfeeding.
If you like always being in a quiet, secluded space, most malls have areas designated for this, and most friends will be happy to lend you their bedroom.
If you are uncomfortable with someone seeing a nip slip, by all means, cover up with a blanket or nursing cover. But don’t let others make you feel uncomfortable: if you are at ease with nursing in public, do it. If you and baby dislike using a cover, it is not immodest or shameful or taboo to nurse without one. Certainly nursing tops and other accessories can make it more discreet, but do not be embarrassed to feed your child when they are hungry or need to be soothed. (And that goes for your breastfed toddler, too.) Your confidence will shut down most nay-sayers, and . then You can send the other ones to me, so I can tear them a new one.
What about bottle-feeding breastmilk?
Neither of my kids were eager to take breastmilk from a bottle. With my first, I had a hand pump and was able to express enough to leave behind for my spouse or whomever was watching my son while I went out. They felt reassured having the bottle with milk, but my son rarely drank it, no matter how fussy he got. The same was true of my daughter.
In the early months, this meant that I was limited to going out sans bébé for only two to three hours, but this was really a short-lived period in the grand scheme of things. I remember trying many different nipples and bottle types for my son, panicked that I would never know freedom again if he wouldn’t take a bottle. But everything feels like forever in those first few months. The thing is, by around 6 months old, when baby starts solids, they’re already on their way to needing your mama milk less. And in my case, even if they had been happy taking a bottle, after two to three hours away, I would have needed to pump my milk anyway or my breasts would turn into spraying fire hydrants. I would scurry home if only for the relief of my nursing babe taking the pressure off.
All babies are different, and all nursing mamas will have different lifestyles and schedules that will affect the need for a baby to take a bottle. Obviously there are many, many women who successfully pump almost full time as they return (by choice or necessity) to the workforce, and if that is likely on the horizon for you, investing in an excellent breast pump and finding the right bottle system for your baby will be critical. My personal favourite breast pump is the Medela Freestyle, but there are many on the market I haven’t tried! Lactation consultants can also help you and your partner learn how to successfully bottle-feed pumped milk.
So what do I want you to know?
In a nutshell
- Your breastfeeding experience is not a success or a failure. Don’t compare yourself to others.
- Don’t equate breastfeeding with mothering.
- Know where to seek support if breastfeeding isn’t going well for you or your newborn.
- Don’t judge yourself if breastfeeding doesn’t come “naturally.” It’s okay not to love breastfeeding, and it’s okay if it’s harder than you thought it would be.
- Breastfeed for as long as works for you and your family: just because your sister breastfed through a zombie apocalypse doesn’t mean you have to.
- Breastfeed in public with confidence or breastfeed discreetly in a more private space, but breastfeed where YOU are comfortable, not where other people are comfortable with your breastfeeding.
Having a list of resources sorted out ahead of time will prove invaluable should breastfeeding not go as planned. While every woman experiences some discomfort as her nipples adjust to suckling, know that grit-your-teeth pain is not normal and could have a variety of causes. Know too that if you don’t find breastfeeding completely natural or wonderful that doesn’t make you any less of a mother. A mentally and physically healthy mother giving her newborn a bottle is better than a mother who is mentally and physically suffering when trying to nurse. The sooner you are able to resolve any breastfeeding issues, the better for everyone involved, so have those phone numbers handy and get a bit of pre-reading under your belt.
Breastfeeding Resources to Have in your Back Pocket
For in-person support:
Ask your ob-gyn, midwife or doula for recommendations: they will likely know about specific services in your community. Some prenatal classes cover the basics of breastfeeding, but the specific curriculum and training of the person offering said curriculum will vary.
Mercedes recommends meeting with an LC before giving birth “if there are any medical issues that would place a woman at higher risk of breastfeeding difficulties, including hypothyroidism, low iron, breast surgery, PCOS, diabetes, unusual nipple shape or size, hypoplastic (underdeveloped) breasts, eating disorders, various mental health conditions, or a history of breastfeeding difficulties with previous children.”
Postpartum, meet with an LC as soon as possible if you are struggling. Identifying someone in your area ahead of time will save you a bit of legwork once baby’s here.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (Heather swears that despite the eyeroll-worthy title, this book is a gem!)
Nourri-Source (Quebec, in French)
How-to video on hand-expressing breastmilk (Heather recommends this video often to her clients)