You may not know but today marks the commencement of 'World Breastfeeding Week'. In my experience as a mother and doula it still is a topic full of misconceptions, emotive discussions and unknown territory for parents to be. I've heard a few times now that women seem to not even receive positive encouragement from their mothers to breastfeed which may be an indication of their own negative or non-existing experience with breastfeeding. It can be tough as a first time mum to make your breastfeeding journey work without support and encouragement from your family! So in my post today I will highlight the key moments in my personal early breastfeeding journey (it is in no way intended as professional advice) when it could have ended pretty quickly. What I write is directed at women who are interested in breastfeeding and are hoping to breastfeed their baby.
As a mother who has breastfed for the majority of the last three and a half years I can say this was (and still is as I continue to breastfeed my 9 m
onth old son) a very rewarding journey. Not just from the perspective of being able to feed and nurture my children just as I did when they were in my belly but also in terms of emotional connection, relaxation and last but not least I found it to be convenient. Food always there at perfect temperature, no need to get up at night or worry about packing food for the first six months. That's a big bonus as a new mother! And whilst this may all sound like a breeze it certainly wasn't like that from the start: Me and my babies had to learn how to breastfeed. And this is where one big misconceptions comes into play:
Babies and mothers naturally know how to breastfeed, right?
When my first son was born in 2012 I remember being somewhat surprised as my midwife told me that my baby had to learn how to breastfeed. I could see how mothers perhaps had to practice this skill but surely babies would be born knowing how to do this stuff? Apparently not. Babies have an instinct that makes them root for the nipple and they also have a suck reflex but they still have to learn how to get a good latch on their mama's nipple (or the areola should I say) and being able to drain the breast effectively. On top of that you'll have a brand new mama who isn't confident yet in holding her baby, how to support the head whilst feeding and how to be comfortable herself (hunched shoulders, anyone?). And...let's not talk around this, the sensation of latching your baby onto your nipple during those very early days takes your breath away. Not because it's so beautiful but because it hurts. As your baby practices its latching capabilities and your nipples get used to the extra love they're getting it is uncomfortable...for a few moments. And that's the key! My midwife said to me "Count to ten and if it still hurts after that the latch isn't right and you need to take the baby off and start again.". Simple but great advice! I would literally take a deep breath, latch on my super hungry newborn son to my nipple and count out loud to ten. It gave me an indication as to whether the latch was OK but also it helped me through those moments of toe curling discomfort. During the first week of heavy feeding and learning my nipples suffered, they even cracked a bit but nothing that some Lanolin and Rite Aid Breast Discs (only discovered them second time around, they were amaaaazing!) could not soothe. And soon after that the nipples seemed to heal, get used to the action and I never had sore nipples again in the 21 months of breastfeeding my first son.
So this is what you need to remember: if your latch on is still breathtakingly uncomfortable and your nipples don't look pretty after 10-14 days something isn't right with your latch and you need to seek professional support and advice. Because, let's face this, no mama will continue to happily breastfeed with bleeding nipples and ongoing pain. It's all in the latch so get help! (By the way, as a doula I provide initial breastfeeding support during my postnatal visits and can refer you to a trusted lactation consultant if the problem persists.)
When you hit bumps along the road...
About four weeks after my first son was born I developed mastitis in one breast. Caught me completely by surprise and knocked me out for six in no time. Within a couple of hours from the first symptoms I had body ache everywhere and was in bed shaking. Not nice and especially when you need to look after a newborn! It was a definite case for antibiotics which cleared it up almost as fast as it arrived but any new mum going through something similar will ditch the breastfeeding very quickly if she doesn't have support. I called the Australian Breastfeeding Assocation Helpline and spoke to a very competent breastfeeding counsellor who encouraged me to continue to feed on the affected breast even though it was very uncomfortable and also helped me identify why I had developed mastitis in the first place. I spoke to the lactation consultant at the hospital where I gave birth and also the lactation helpline of the Early Childhood Centre. I learnt to monitor both boobs for lumps very carefully and if I'd find one would use massage and strokes towards my nipple to clear the lumps whilst feeding. I began to use two different positions for each feed as I learnt that often the baby only empties one area of the breast (the one its nose is pointed towards) in one position which can be hazardous especially with bigger boobs. I learnt to never ever skip or delay a feed and to not start pumping milk until my milk supply had fully established (around 6-8 weeks). That's a big one as breastfeeding is all based on supply and demand - if you pump your breast thinks you have a higher demand and will subsequently produce more milk than your baby can drink...and that's a recipe for lumps. I also became more aware towards emptying one breast fully before moving onto the other, something that I hadn't paid too much attention previously. But - if I wouldn't have had the advice, support, encouragement from my husband and family this also would have been an easy time to give up. I can only say it again and again, when things get tough whilst breastfeeding you need get all the professional support that is available!
Breastfeeding in public
This was never a concern or real worry for me but I know that it is for many new mamas. If thinking of uncovering your breast in public whilst still being a bit clumsy in positioning the baby makes you break out in sweat then here are some suggestions of what you can do: First of all, always wear breastfeeding suitable clothing. Something where your boob is easily and comfortably accessible. Even I've had mishaps where I'd forget and wear a high neck dress and the only way to feed is to literally roll up the dress to my neck. Not a good look! Then wear or take a nice scarf which you can drape around your shoulders to cover any skin that one might see - and to be honest, there usually isn't a lot to cover. Or you are wearing a cardigan which you can discreetly wrap around your baby or boob. With my first son I used one of those specific breastfeeding covers when in public which gave me a sense of security as it completely covered my upper half but I could still see and look at my baby. It also seemed to soothe him from things happening around him resulting in calmer feeds. At around three months my son didn't want to be hidden any more and would make it his challenge to pull away the cover whenever he could but by then I had become more confident in our feeding and we happily continued without one. So if you fear that your boobs will be exposed for everyone to see then you know that there are things you can do to stop that from happening! Breastfeeding can be as discreet as you'd like it to be. Some mamas are comfortable to show a bit of sideboob whilst some prefer to fully cover up...it's all good.
Personally I have only experienced encouragement also from the men in my life (my husband, my father) to breastfeed. People go to great lengths to arrange a quiet spot for you to feed, give you a glass of water, check if you need extra pillows etc. Not once have I felt unwelcome or observed in a disapproving way when I fed my sons in public and if anything, I felt admiration especially from some older women when I fed my 18 month old firstborn on a flight to Europe (which was a total life saver by the way!) which kept him happy when patience was about to run out...
And last but not least...
Once you have bypassed those hurdles of the early days and weeks you have opened the door to a happy breastfeeding relationship for as long as you and baby are happy to nurse. I still look forward to that last feed before bedtime every day, it is a moment of peace and quietness that the day often doesn't hold and I love watching my baby drift off to sleep whilst he plays with my hand (yes, I feed my son to sleep - but that's another topic!) every time. I still experience a sense of satisfaction when the let down reflex sets in and I begin to hear my son gulp down my milk. As a mother, breastfeeding has been and is an experience I wouldn't want to miss and I count my lucky stars for not throwing in the towel during those early challenges.
Any questions or thoughts? I'd love to hear from you!