It’s World Breastfeeding Week, and as a breastfeeding mother, I am absolutely celebrating. Because breastfeeding is super hard. I’m now breastfeeding my second son, and it’s much easier. But just two years ago, when I had my first baby, I was super new—and super terrible—at it.
When it comes to breastfeeding, I feel like we often hear experiences from two extremes—those who are superwomen experts at breastfeeding and those who decided it was not for them—or that it was downright impossible. But I think that there’s a group of us that just fell into breastfeeding, and we continue to do it just because.
I’m definitely not an expert, and I chose to keep breastfeeding my babies because it was possible, even though it was really, really hard. Maybe it was the challenge, maybe it was the science, maybe it was the baby snuggles, maybe it was my new mom daze. I’m not totally sure.
But here are a few things I learned along the way:
There’s a Class for That
Before I had my first baby, I decided I was going to try to breastfeed. Couldn’t hurt to try!
I had friends who breastfed successfully, and they recommended that I take a class. Despite thinking a class was a crazy idea, it turned out to be a great introduction to what was to come. Plus, there were other newbie mothers learning too, so that made me feel better.
The Breastfeeding Center is a great place for free classes, and many hospitals in the area offer classes as well. After taking a few classes, I felt prepared for what was to come … until I realized that I totally wasn’t! (But still, the classes were worth it! And I got my husband to take a class too!)
The First Latch
Once my baby was born, the nurse put him on my chest and asked me to see if he’d latch. My reaction to this was utter disbelief. I had just given birth to a baby, everything hurt, and now I was expected to breastfeed him?!
WHAT?! This is happening NOW?! LIKE RIGHT NOW?!
I’m really not sure why I was so surprised by this idea, but it caught me off guard. When I finally wrapped my head around the idea that I actually was going to breastfeed my baby FOR REAL, I tried my best. I got my baby to start sucking and I thought I was a rockstar … until I realized I was doing it all wrong.
The First Visit From the Lactation Consultant
A few hours later, the lactation consultant visited me to see how I was doing. Of course, she heard my baby sucking away and told me that the sucking noise meant I was doing it all wrong. The baby wasn’t really latched. Great. Just great. She positioned me with more pillows, adjusted my hold, and tilted the baby’s head back … until he REALLY latched. OUCH! So that’s why everyone says it hurts.
The LC asked me to try to hold my baby like a football and I looked at her like she was crazy. I could barely hold my squirmy newborn without being awkward; putting him in a football hold seemed physically impossible (but if you can do it—good for you!). We finally came to an agreement that I could start off with the more advanced cross-body hold. (Yes, there are advanced positions, apparently!)
For the record, when the LC came in after I had my second baby, I didn’t even let her entertain the idea of doing the football hold. I just refused. Do what’s right for you. But also, bring your Boppy pillow. Don’t go to the hospital without it. Your arms will thank you.
Breastfeeding at Home
When I got home from the hospital, I thought I could handle breastfeeding on my own. Finally, some privacy! But I still wasn’t comfortable. Everything hurt, I couldn’t tell if the baby was getting anything to eat, and I was desperate for more information. I called the lactation consultant like thirty times to get help during my first week at home. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
When Your Baby Isn’t Getting Enough
At my baby’s first week appointment, I found out he wasn’t getting enough milk. Either my milk wasn’t fully in yet, or his latch wasn’t great yet. Either way, the doctors asked us to supplement.
First, they suggested that I pump after feedings and give him that extra bit in a bottle to supplement.
My new mom brain could not comprehend how to do this. You want me to feed him, pump, and then feed him the pumped milk in a bottle? Although they explained this to me five times, I couldn’t understand what they were suggesting. My husband, who was sitting right there, tried to explain it to me, too. Still didn’t get it.
Finally, they suggested feeding him a tiny bottle of formula for the supplement, at least for a few days until I got the hang of pumping. Somehow, this I understood.
Unboxing Your Pump for the First Time
Even though we decided to supplement with formula for a few days, I took my pump out of its box and attempted to do what the doctors suggested. When I saw my pump, my mouth gaped open in horror. What the heck is this contraption!? THIS IS A PUMP?! WOMEN CHOOSE TO USE THIS MACHINE TO PUMP MILK FROM THEIR BOOBS?! I could NOT believe it.
Maybe I should have opened my pump sooner, done some research, anything to be a little bit smarter. It took me a full week to get the courage to wash and sanitize all the parts and bottles. And then I tried it.
YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME.
As I pumped tiny amounts (or no amount) of milk during my first pump, I kept thinking, “WOMEN DO THIS? WOMEN DO THIS?” over and over, to the beat of the pumping noise. It felt insane.
By the way, when you first pump, it’s totally normal to get nothing or only a small amount of milk. You may feel totally discouraged like I did, but this is totally normal. Also, in order to get anything, you may need different size flanges! I didn’t know this for a few weeks, and when I finally got the right size, my attitude towards pumping changed.
When Everything Hurts
Everyone told me breastfeeding was hard, but I really didn’t believe them. But they were all right. Thankfully, they also invited me to join a Facebook support group for breastfeeding mothers, and it was the best thing ever. That group really helped me power through the toughest times; the women truly shared what was bothering them, and everything made sense.
And also, sometimes I just let the tears flow. Because it really hurt.
Late night feedings are the best times to order all the supplies: nipple cream, nursing tops, nursing bras—just have everything delivered directly to your doorstep. Don’t hold back.
Learn from my mistakes: Lanolin cream stains, so make sure to wear a pad. I didn’t know this and all of my sleep bras are permanently stained, and some of my shirts too!
Finding a few different nursing bras (for sleep and everyday wear) is a good idea, though I never actually found any that I loved. I had to alter them (read: sew, cut, etc.) so that they fit my postpartum body better.
Another thing that helped me get through the tough times was visiting The Breastfeeding Center again. It was so helpful to hear from other women who were experiencing the same pains and to learn how to pump. It was also good to hear that what I was experiencing was totally normal, and in fact, despite everything I was feeling and thinking, I was doing just fine.
#1 Worry: Supply Issues
Thankfully to that Facebook support group, I learned that everyone worries about their supply. You will worry too.
What if I drop a feeding in the middle of the night (because I’m just SO TIRED)—will my supply go down? What if I miss a pumping session because a meeting pops up at work?
I became obsessed with my supply and trying to boost it in any way I could. Mother’s Milk tea. Drinking all the water possible. Adding pumping sessions during the day, and even increasing pumping session durations. The Facebook support group has many suggestions for increasing supply.
I did what I could. You will too. But what I did learn is that sticking to a schedule helps, as does practicing pumping.
Breastfeeding in Public
Breastfeeding in public was a real challenge for me. My first time was when I went out to lunch with a friend who had a baby a month older than mine. She was a champion breastfeeder (her new baby was her second), and she was someone I counted on to help me learn the ropes. I hope I didn’t embarrass her too much when I stripped off all my clothes just to get my baby to latch correctly. I was down to my bra and nursing tank by the time I was done getting set up. In January. At a restaurant. Using a cover at that point was still super awkward for me. I just didn’t understand how to do it.
Note: Don’t wear bulky sweaters if you plan to breastfeed in public (unless you are an expert). Also, practice using a nursing cover at home. Or don’t and bare it all like I did!
When It Finally Gets Better
Breastfeeding did eventually get better for me. It took me two solid months to finally get comfortable. There was a day when the pain completely vanished, and it felt like the rain stopped and the clouds parted. My baby was also getting enough milk. I even figured out how to fit in pumping sessions between feedings, and I started a freezer supply to prepare to go back to work.
Maybe it will take you less time to be awesome at breastfeeding, maybe longer. Or maybe never! But with practice and consistency, I was finally able to cross the threshold of pain and awkwardness and move forward. I was a breastfeeding mother for real!
After that, breastfeeding in public suddenly became easier. I took my baby out to meet other mothers, and breastfed all the time. A friend told me later that she thought I was an expert breastfeeder when we first met. I was breastfeeding my son at a brewery like it was nothing. I was finally comfortable, able to wear a cover in public without being awkward, and totally killing it. And she had no idea how hard it had been for me to get there.
Breastfeeding my second son is much easier. I’m more comfortable with my postpartum body, more comfortable holding a squirmy infant, and more comfortable concentrating on feeding my baby. I no longer worry about hiding my body when feeding the baby in public and I have figured out how to use a cover if needed.
And while I’m comfortable breastfeeding, I still think I have a lot to learn. There’s work to be done—a new pump to figure out, a freezer stash to build up before I return to work, and bottle training for my son before he starts daycare. I may not be a breastfeeding expert, but I am proud of how far I’ve come and what I’ve learned.
If you have tips to share from your experience as a newbie breastfeeding mother, please comment below!