Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are 100% my own.
Breast is best.
The message is ingrained into our collective consciousness. It is the best, healthiest, and most acceptable way to feed your child. It provides the highest opportunity for increased immunity, protection against illness, and gastrointestinal health. Studies draw correlations between breastfeeding and higher IQs, decreased rates of obesity, and so on and so forth.
So we all should do it, right?
If only it were that easy.9 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My #Breastfeeding Journey. #Nursing #Motherhood #Baby Click To Tweet
I’m now on my third child, and this is exactly the first time I have ever been able to exclusively breastfeed.
With my first, a combination of physical factors and my delay in taking any action prevented breastfeeding altogether. So my child was almost exclusively formula fed – much to the disgust of online nursing board trolls who attacked and belittled other mothers for formula feeding (another topic I will discuss in another post). For the record, my first child is now a perfectly healthy, intelligent, and fit preschooler.
With my second, I tried very hard to breastfeed. But after many weeks and more lactation consultants, breast pumps, and tears than I can count, I finally resorted to exclusive pumping. I exclusively pumped as much as I could produce (about 75-80% of my child’s intake) for just over 10 months. I don’t wish that on anyone. My goal had been to hit a year but, as anyone who has exclusively pumped can attest, it is a lot of work and frankly – I was over it. My second child is much like my first: healthy, intelligent, and physically fit.
But with my third, I was determined to breastfeed. I didn’t want to exclusively pump, and I wanted to know that my body could actually do what it was meant to do. This time I prepared extensively. I read books, watched YouTube videos, and talked to lactation consultants. I purchased everything I thought I would need. (And also purchased some formula too – just in case).
And by golly – now at eight weeks postpartum – I think we’ve finally got it!
But it’s not at all what I expected. There are parts that are much better and, truthfully, parts that are worse. I love and am so proud that my son and I have figured it out. We are in it for the long haul. But there are definitely things I wish I knew going in that would have helped me to better prepare. (If you are further along in your breastfeeding journey, check out my new post, 10 More Things I’ve Learned About Breastfeeding At 6 Months Postpartum).
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And I don’t mean the “tender nipples” that all the breastfeeding books and lactation consulting boards gloss over. I mean it hurts like hell!
Especially in the beginning weeks, it feels like hundreds of tiny knives stabbing and cutting off your nipples every time you feed. Teeth clenching, wincing, toe curling pain.
Now imagine that these extremely sensitive and hurting nipples are required to feed again every 1-2 hours. The pain compounds. And makes you dread feedings. Add to this the fact that you’re still recovering from the birth experience, and that your hormones are all over the place, and it’s a recipe for disaster – or at least to give up and switch to formula.
Now, after the first few weeks the pain does begin to subside during the feed, but the initial pain remains – for about 20-30 seconds after latch. I suspect now that the initial pain will always be there, even if it does continue to decrease.
What is most frustrating about all of this is that if you dare speak of any pain, you will be immediately shunned. Breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt, they’ll say. If it hurts then you’re doing something wrong, they’ll proclaim. Yet by the time the third lactation consultant is checking your latch and confirming that the baby is latching on properly (and that there are no tongue tie or other related issues), you will begin to suspect that the pain is just a normal part of nursing.
My advice is to avoid online breastfeeding forums. All the talk about it not hurting will simply make you feel like you are in fact doing something wrong and that you will never get it right. Lucky mothers who apparently don’t experience any pain will make you feel even worse.
So what works to help relieve the pain? Of all the gel packs, soothing pads, and other products on the market, I’ve only found two that provided me any real relief:
- Medela SoftShells: These saved me the first few weeks. When your nipples are that sore, you don’t want anything touching them between feeds. Not even shirts or nursing bras. Air is the best way to heal, along with some expressed breast milk on and around the nipples, but it simply isn’t practical to walk around topless all day. These bad boys fit comfortably over your nipples and provide protection from any contact while allowing air in to help with the healing process. They are well hidden under shirts and are easy to clean. A definite must have if you experience any soreness like me.
- Medela Contact Nipple Shield: This is a thin shield that is placed over the nipple before breastfeeding. It allows the baby to nurse from the breast while minimizing pain for you. They are not intended to act as a long term solution (and many lactation consultants will advise you not to use them for fear that there will be difficulties weaning from them), but if it is a choice between that and forgoing breastfeeding altogether, I say go with the nipple shields. They don’t completely eliminate all pain, but make it much more manageable. I’ve used these many times and have had no issues going back and forth between the shield and my nipple. A close friend of mine used nipple shields exclusively for three months, and had little issue weaning her baby directly onto the breast afterwards.
It hurts even when you’re not feeding
Sad, but true. Think that breast engorgement is a one time thing when your milk comes in? Think again. Any time you go longer than a few hours without either nursing or pumping, that hard pain of engorgement will come searing right back.
My nipples never get fully desensitized, which means that for however long I pump or breastfeed, my nipples are sore. That’s over ten months with my second child. They hurt in the shower (heaven forbid a stream of water hits them), if I put on a bra too quickly, or even if my breasts are not fully emptied. It just is what it is, and I’ve had to learn to accept it.
Not all Lactation Consultants are created equal
Once you give birth, a lactation consultant will be assigned to you in the hospital to help you through the initial days of breastfeeding. If you run into any challenges once you return home, you will undoubtedly seek the services of additional lactation consultants. There is no shortage of lactation consultants available, but they are NOT all the same.
I have had the opportunity to see many lactation consultants after the births of all three of my sons. Some helped. Others did not. Some had a great bedside manner. Others did not. Just like with any other service.
First, you want to ensure that any lactation consultant you see is certified as an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant). I’ve noticed that many IBCLC certified lactation consultants are also certified in other services, or are RNs (Registered Nurses). Look for any combination of certification and skills that you may be interested in.
Consider if you’re interested in 1:1 consultations or a group setting. I personally prefer 1:1 consultations, but have had some luck with group settings/classes as well. I think if you are really struggling and considering quitting, a personal consultation is the most effective.
Talk to other mothers in your area. Ask for referrals. Tap your doctors and doulas. Consider contacting your local chapter of La Leche League if you need additional help. Don’t forget to contact your insurance company, as many do now provide coverage for lactation consulting services. My carrier, for example, allows for six in-network consultations free of charge, and additional at a deeply discounted rate.
Once you meet with the lactation consultant, ask questions. Share your concerns. And listen to not only what they say, but how they say it. I can think of two lactation consultants I’ve been to who were very good at what they do, but who had a horrible bedside manner. One berated me for supplementing with any formula, and the other was hurried, impatient, and dismissive. Not a great combination for an already frustrated mom looking for help.
Find someone you are comfortable with, and who is easily accessible to you. Odds are you won’t only have nursing questions and issues during business hours Monday through Friday, so find someone who welcomes your stressed texts and phone calls at 3am on a Sunday morning. They exist! And these are the ones who will help you reach your goals.
Supplements don’t always help with supply
With all three of my babies, I’ve had milk supply issues. Fortunately, my supply has increased with each baby and now I’ve finally gotten to the point where I am feeding my baby breast milk exclusively. But along the way, I’ve tried several products recommended to try to increase my supply. Here are some of my results:
- Lactation Cookies: Yummy, but did nothing for me in terms of supply.
- Mothers Milk Tea: I do think this helped me a bit, and I used it throughout most of the time I was exclusively pumping with my second child. It became habit – drink a cuppa as I pumpa. That said, it may have just been the additional fluid intake that was marginally helping with my supply.
- Fenugreek: I took it religiously with my first two children, but am not a huge fan. You have to take 6-9 capsules a day (a few three times a day) which is the first inconvenience. I wouldn’t mind if it had worked, but I simply don’t think it did. Also, your sweat and urine will smell strongly of maple syrup as long as you’re taking it.
- Milk Thistle: I also took this with both of my first two children, and didn’t notice much of a difference. I gave up and stopped taking it within a couple of weeks.
- Drinkable Supplements: I have tried at least 4-5 drinkable products designed to increase nursing mothers’ milk production. I didn’t find that any of them made a noticeable difference.
Now, that’s not to say that these supplements don’t work. Studies show that they can or do. They just didn’t work for ME.
What DOES work for me is eating often, drinking a lot of water (I aim for at least eight glasses a day), and nursing and pumping often. Which brings me to my next point.
You will still have to pump
I was so excited at the prospect of putting away the pump with my third baby. After 10 months of pumping with my second, I was DONE and ready to simply nurse at the breast.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Much to my dismay, I learned that a successful breastfeeding relationship often includes pumping – at least for low suppliers like myself. So now, I am both nursing AND pumping.
The good news is that instead of pumping 10-12 times a day, I’m now pumping only 2-3 times a day. This is to increase my supply. So after the baby feeds, I will pump for an additional 15-20 minutes a few times a day to increase milk production. Other times I pump include times when the baby is sleeping and I don’t want to wake him to feed. Or if I am uncomfortably full in the night and need relief.
More good news is that it should help build a freezer stash, which means that someone else can feed the baby if you’re unable to.
But – let’s face it. Pumping is a PITA. Plastic parts, cleaning, storing milk, etc. And it only gets worse if you’re going back to work and won’t have the baby near you all the time.
Newborns eat OFTEN
In the beginning I was feeding every 30-60 minutes. Consistently. Which means that you basically have no time for anything OTHER than breastfeeding.
Even now, eight weeks in, I’m feeding every 1-2 hours at most. That is a lot of time spent breastfeeding. I track my feeds on a mobile baby app (Baby Connect – an excellent free app that tracks everything to do with baby) and am averaging close to three hours of breastfeeding daily at this point. This doesn’t include the additional time I spend pumping each day.
It’s basically a part time job. Much more than that in the very beginning.
I’m not complaining. Frequent feeds mean that your baby is doing his job and thriving. But it does mean that you have to become very deliberate about your schedule (or lack thereof) to be available for frequent feeds.
Feeds aren’t always as serene as they seem on TV
Turns out that babies have moods just like the rest of us. And that carries over into your nursing relationship.
Yes, there are times when the baby will feed peacefully, calmly, and you’ll be able to relax and just melt into the moment. But there are other times when your baby will be fussy, chomping and pulling at the nipple, while crying and fighting.
There are times when a feed will take 20 minutes and be easy-peasy. But there are also times when you will be feeding for over an hour only to find that your baby continues to remain unsatisfied, frustrating you both.
Sometimes your baby will allow you to easily guide him to the breast, gently releasing the latch once he is satiated. But at other times your baby will fight as you attempt to help her latch, and will pull off suddenly and painfully while clamping on your nipple when startled by a loud noise.
I’m confident that this gets better over time, as you and your baby learn each other’s cues and fall into a groove, but it’s always a possibility that either Mom or baby is having a bad day.
Lanolin allergies exist
Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I was shocked to find this out. After basically drowning my nipples in the stuff in my quest for pain relief, I was disappointed to not experience much relief at all – and instead simply be stuck with greasy, messy nipples. Even worse, my wounds weren’t healing and my nipples remained red, cracked, itchy, and swollen.
My lactation consultant took one look and diagnosed me with a lanolin allergy. Yep, I’m allergic to lanolin.
Turns out that lanolin comes from sheep’s wool, helping to make it waterproof. I also have an allergy to wool so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that lanolin causes the same reaction – if only I had known or researched its origins.
I quickly switched to the recommended Earth Mama Angel Baby Natural Nipple Butter (try saying that five times fast) and was amazed at how quickly the redness, itchiness, and swollen nipples healed. Not only that, but it was SO much easier to apply – a much lighter and smoother consistency that glides on and off. And no GMOs.
Even better, you can use regular old olive oil, which also contains some healing properties and is likely sitting around your kitchen already anyway.
So if the lanolin isn’t helping with healing, look into whether you may have an allergy and consider another product or just plain olive oil.
It is extremely satisfying
I expected to feel proud IF I could successfully breastfeed this time around, and I do. What I didn’t expect was how fulfilled it would make me feel. There is something deeply satisfying about knowing that you are feeding your child as nature intended. That you are responsible for his physical growth and weight gain. That your body brings her comfort when she is upset.
There are moments in the middle of the night, when everyone else is sound asleep, that I want to cry gazing at my baby feeding so contentedly. When he finally releases in a milk-drunk haze, dozing over my shoulder as he is burped and then put back to bed.
There are expressions that only I will see. Sounds and coos that only I will hear. And baby eyes that only I will witness as they ease from anxiety to calm during a feed.
And these are the moments I live for. That make everything else worthwhile. These fleeting moments that will be gone too soon once he no longer will need me to nourish him.
So everything else – the pain, the inconvenience – I’ll take it. And cherish this time before it’s gone.
Interested in a breastfeeding update? Check out my new post, 10 More Things I’ve Learned About Breastfeeding At 6 Months Postpartum!