Baby related thoughts: On breastfeeding

This is the sixth of a series of posts on pregnancy, labor, birth, and being a new parent. See intro and full list.

After the initial few days of figuring out how my milk plumbing worked, breastfeeding was a breeze for me. But for many women, it’s not. I think our culture has lost some of the normality of breastfeeding; it’s no longer common knowledge as to how it works and how it’s done. Women of my generation learn from books, pay for lactation consultants, or go out of their way to join groups like the La Leche League to find the support they need. Unlike many other places in the world, it’s not okay to whip out a breast and start feeding in public (even in my town, which supposedly has a higher percentage of women who breastfeed); breastfeeding is something that happens behind closed doors or under colorful Hooter Hiders, so girls and young women never actually get to observe what a “good latch” looks like. Consequently, women find out that breastfeeding is not a natural but a learned behavior. In an informal observational “survey”* of the young moms that I know, 7/10 had more difficulty than not getting breastfeeding “going.”

Even without facing a tenth of the challenges that some of my friends did, I can’t say that breastfeeding was “easy” when starting out. Like almost every other aspect of parenting, I was uncertain, worried of doing things wrong, and had no prior reference or personal experience to draw on. The “good latch” photographs in books such as The Nursing Mother’s Companion and The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding gave me some idea of how the baby should be positioned, but I wished that I had x-ray vision to see if the baby’s tongue was properly positioned below the nipple and areola and if the nipple was drawn back into the back part of the baby’s mouth. I had to trust the nurses and lactation consultants at the hospital, who reassured me that I had “perfect breasts for nursing” and that the belly-to-belly, nose-pointing-at-me position of the baby was fine. Nonetheless, I still developed a painful pressure blister on one of my nipples by the second day. (It eventually scabbed over and got better.) A few weeks later, I worried that I had a plugged duct and spent hours (well, at least a good half-hour) in a hot shower trying to get the painfully hard, engorged spot on my breast to loosen up and unplug. I flipped through the breastfeeding books I was borrowing from the library, trying to figure out if it was really a plugged duct or not or if something else was going on. (I think it was a plugged duct.) Also, as is typical for newborns, Steven was a very sleepy eater – three sucks in and he’d be dozing off. Despite these initial stresses, I’m very grateful that I had a relatively easy experience. Steven naturally caught on to breastfeeding well (despite being slightly tongue-tied, which can add on to the challenge of feeding) and my milk production was good.

While I can’t speak too much from my own experience, I think I can put together at least a few thoughts and tips, mostly based on the experiences of other friends.

  • “Breastfeeding may lead to some discomfort initially, but it shouldn’t be terribly painful. If it is, there may be something wrong with the baby’s latch.” This is general advice found in most books about breastfeeding, but it’s terribly unhelpful to new moms. How are you supposed to know the line between discomfort and pain when you’ve never breastfed before? My experience was that the nipple that developed a blister felt like it was getting pinched with each suck, and the painful spot was getting pink. In contrast, the other side never felt like it was getting pinched.
  • Especially when first starting out, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Ask for help, even if you feel embarrassed about making a big deal out of a “little pinch.” One of the best pieces of advice I got from a friend (even though I ended up not having to use it) was to budget extra money in the case that we needed to talk to a lactation consultant multiple times. In the first days of breastfeeding, your body is establishing its level of milk production, so it’s better to get help sooner than later.
  • If breastfeeding is a big priority, be prepared to expend a lot of effort to get it going properly (and then be thankful if it ends up being easy). Some friends found it necessary to pump between feedings to get their bodies thinking that demand was increasing in order to get the supply up. There are also herbal remedies for increasing milk production, I think. I spent the first few weeks confined to my room so that I could be topless while feeding and allow the skin-to-skin contact to increase the milk-producing hormones in my body. Other friends spent hundreds of dollars visiting different lactation consultants. It’s very possible that you may need to put a halt on visitors in order to focus on giving the baby an optimal environment for getting a good feeding, or that your husband or partner has to take over all other household tasks so that you can focus on staying relaxed and rested, both of which influence milk let-down.
  • One of the things I took away from our “intro to breastfeeding” class was how milk production is rooted in hormone activity. Specifically, oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone” because it’s produced in response to touch (cuddling, sexual intercourse, and breastfeeding being three examples), also plays a role in milk let-down (and possibly production, if I recall the class correctly). So, skin-to-skin contact was highly encouraged. Things that inhibit milk production and let down include adrenaline/stress and distractions. So, especially when starting out (and possibly continuing for a while), you want to provide a calm environment for both you and your baby.
  • Milk production is also based in supply and demand. However, this doesn’t mean that you should nurse your baby for hours on end. While I don’t know the specifics as to how much rest is best in between feedings, I’ve at least heard vague statements by mothers (quoting their lactation consultants) that the body needs some time to recover.
  • Starting out, nursing Steven was always at least a half-hour to 45-minute process to eat on both sides. This was because he was soooo sleepy as soon as he started eating (because oxytocin is produced in the baby, too, it makes them verrrryyyy relaxed). The literature and experts are split on whether or not you should try to keep the baby awake or not. Some say that you should let them sleep because when they are really hungry, they’ll stay awake. Others say that you should encourage them to stay awake so that they get a good feeding, which will help them to establish a more regular pattern and routine, even if that means tickling their feet, putting a cold washcloth on their skin, or stroking the side of their cheek. Child of Mine, the go-to resource for feeding children from infancy and up, is somewhere in the middle, advocating that you encourage the child to stay awake but shying away from tickling the baby, jiggling them, or otherwise messing with them. Instead, the book describes animatedly taking with them. (We and chose to go the keep-them-awake method, but resorted to tickling/cold washcloth because talking didn’t do a thing.) Now, however, Steven eats for 10 or 15 minutes and is done! Now that he is older, he stays awake and eats very efficiently.

Finally, I do have friends who weren’t able to get breastfeeding to work exclusively for them and supplemented with formula or went to exclusively formula. The guilt and frustration they experienced is a whole other topic. As a friend, I struggled with encouraging them without communicating to them that they weren’t trying hard enough. Next time, I think I would mention that Child of Mine has a chapter for formula-fed babies next to the chapter on breast-fed babies and stays away from making judgment calls on breastfeeding or not, which other breastfeeding books tend to do (they make mothers who don’t breastfeed feel like second-class citizens). Also, in Bright From the Start, a book about encouraging development and learning in your baby, the author suggests that some of the causes of higher IQ in breastfed babies are because the babies switch sides and because the mothers talk more to them. Babies tend to play and touch things as they nurse, and switching sides forces them to use both hands (the one that’s free) to explore. This exercises both parts of their brain. So with a bottle-fed baby, it might be worth it to try turning them around halfway through feeding to allow that type of development. The parents might also find it helpful to observe how different nursing mothers interact with their babies (research supposedly shows that they talk more to their babies) and then replicate that while bottle feeding. Finally, another person gave me some great advice that it doesn’t matter what sleep theory you adhere to, what matters is loving and consistent parenting for the child’s whole life. I think that applies to whether or not the child is breastfed or formula fed, too!

Okay – other moms out there, what ideas or thoughts do you have about breastfeeding?

* I didn’t actually survey people, so this information is mainly based on conversational snippets that I’ve had with my friends, including secondhand snippets.

My breastfeeding bibliography from other posts:

2 thoughts on “Baby related thoughts: On breastfeeding

  1. Looking back on the first two weeks of feeding Beth I think I picked up breast feeding fairly easily, but there were some very low points where we almost switched to formula.

    Fortunately in the UK (or at least where I live) there is a lot of support for breast feeding from the doctors, midwives and health visitors and it is all provided free.

    I think I may have a stubborn daughter though. We had a check up with a midwife on day 5 and she said my technique was good. However when I got home and did the next feed Beth refused to latch on; and ended up expressing and feeding her from a bottle for the first time.

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