One year. That was my goal as soon as I found out I was pregnant: to breastfeed my baby for the first year of his (or her) life.
And when the nurse first brought my little girl up to my breast for her first sip of mama’s milk, I was overjoyed that yes! I really can do this whole breastfeeding thing.
Because to be honest, as I was approaching my due date, I was terrified. Who wouldn’t be at the idea that this body—the one that can do so much, but had never, ever imagined it would do this—was going to be producing all the sustenance for this tiny human being? And, how would my baby know how to drink? How would I know what I needed to do? And most of all—what if I just couldn’t do it?
“Most new moms have those exact same questions,” said Teresa McCullen, lactation consultant at Augusta University Health. “It is so important to know your resources, including your pediatrician, lactation consultant, good Internet sources, and family and friends, so that you can have every opportunity to work toward and reach your personal breastfeeding goal. But know this: Even if you had a difficult labor and delivery—including having your baby separated from you after birth—your baby is born with the knowledge of what to do. Just trust your baby.”
Happily for me, that was the case. My daughter latched on well right from the start—and now at 9 months old has only just now started to show more interest in other foods besides my milk. And the past nine months have been both the best and the toughest of my life.
Because breastfeeding? It may be natural, but it’s hard—harder than I thought when I was a wide-eyed preggie with all the glow of creating new life.
I loved my breastfeeding class, but there was so much I didn’t know to ask until breastfeeding was actually happening. So here’s the straight talk:
Your newborn may eat around the clock—or not.
All the books and classes say that newborns will breastfeed 8 to 12 times a day. But you have to keep in mind that this is an average. Several of my friends had difficulty with their babies latching and struggled with breastfeeding. I had the opposite issue: My daughter loved nursing—and I mean loved it. I tracked her feedings on an app during those early days, and at one point she fed 21 times in a single day. That’s a lot of couch or bed time for mama. So don’t be shocked if your experience is not the average. The upside is that all of that nursing does help your milk come in strongly and more quickly!
You have to—have to!—take a break.
During those early—and hectic—breastfeeding days, you will want to be with your baby constantly. And your family, who is there to help you, may do everything else so that you can be with your baby constantly. But “me time” is a must. When loved ones offer to spell you, take them up on it—or if they don’t, you should insist on going outside, walking, visiting the grocery store, even for just 15 minutes. Give yourself the time to take a shower—and have your loved ones hold your baby (and not stand outside the bathroom door with a crying baby!) while you’re doing it. You’re going to need that time, mama, to help you feel more balanced. Because…
Hormones can wreak havoc with your sleep and overall outlook on life.
After you have a baby, all that lovely estrogen that made you feel great and gave you the best skin and hair of your life begins to drop so that you can make milk. You’ll still be riding high on the estrogen train for a few months, but after month four, as your hair begins to fall out in clumps (and you will be very, very worried about this, but yes, I promise, it will grow back!), that lack of estrogen can make you feel cranky and also can interrupt your sleep. Along with it, the expectation that your baby will awaken during the night can give you what’s prettily called “momsomnia,” which isn’t so pretty when you’re living through it. Breastfeeding mamas should be cautious, though, about sleep medications, so talk to your doctor, but also try adding in exercise, using white noise or even a glass of warm milk or cup of chamomile tea before bed. Magnesium supplements can also help.
When your period returns, you may see a drop in your milk.
It’s a double whammy: When your monthly cycle returns (along with that surge in estrogen), you can experience a drop in your milk supply. Breastfeeding moms are typically anxious about having enough supply anyway (this one was!), so the sensation of the breasts not being full can be alarming. Try not to panic as this can also be when your breasts start to regulate milk production since they tend to overproduce during the first few months.
If you have started feeding baby breastmilk from a bottle and are pumping, just check how much you’re pumping. (Note: It’s a very good idea to start feeding baby from a bottle after latch is well established, and to continue practicing with a bottle, in order to get your baby acclimated for when you return to work or just need a little break from breastfeeding. Just make sure you pump at around the same time your baby feeds.) If you are truly seeing a milk drop, try adding in some milk-boosting foods such as oatmeal, spinach and fruit smoothies or fenugreek. A daily dose of at least 500 mg of calcium and 250 mg of magnesium can help too, according to KellyMom.com. Double-pumping (invest in a hands-free pumping bra) is also very helpful in stimulating and keeping your milk up.
Never heard of clogged milk ducts or milk blisters? You might want to read up.
Breastfeeding is not without its pitfalls. If you skip a feeding (or even if you don’t), you can sometimes get what’s called a clogged or plugged milk duct: a hard, painful and warm spot on your breast. It’s exactly what it sounds like—rich, fatty milk that is backed up inside one of your ducts. If you get one of these, the best cure is plenty of breastfeeding and vigorous massage of the hard, painful area toward the nipple as your baby is feeding. Do this as soon as you can and do it often until the hard spot goes away. Otherwise, you risk mastitis or breast abscess, which are as nasty as they sound.
Your nipples can also fall prey to milk blisters: little white spots that are similar to whiteheads. These happen when a bit of dried milk clogs up a pore on your nipple. They’re tiny and seem innocent, but can lead to painful nursing and radiating pain into the breast. If you spot one, work hard to get rid of it by soaking your nipple before feeding in an Epsom salt solution (just make sure to rinse or wipe the saltiness off your breast before feeding) or applying a very warm washcloth. Rub at the blister with the washcloth or the edge of a fingernail to try to dislodge it. Do this in the shower as well.
If the plug loosens, you may see a bit of blood—and if you pump, you might all of a sudden see a bottle full of pink blood, which is so scary!—but don’t worry. It’s a good thing since it means the plug is gone. Just make sure to soak your nipple and apply a little breast milk or lanolin, all of which help it heal.
But don’t worry—you can do this! If it’s what you really want to do.
Believe me, I’ve had more than my share of tears and moments when I thought that I just couldn’t keep on breastfeeding. Even now, I still feed my daughter five or six times a day for a half hour to an hour at a time on average—and I’m working part-time too. Which doesn’t give mama much “me time.” I sometimes envy my friends who’ve already switched to formula and don’t have to worry anymore about pumping and long breastfeeding sessions.
But at the same time, I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity and the experience of breastfeeding my daughter, to see her bright skin and shiny hair and happy personality and know that my milk is playing a role in her good health. As my doctor told me, “Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint,”—and now with my one-year goal in sight, I am ready to rock that finish line.