I never quite understood why breastfeeding was considered a “journey” until I began my own after the birth of my first child. It’s amazing how many difficulties there can be for such a natural process! Below are 7 things I wish I knew about breastfeeding before my son was born.
Before I dive into the list, I want to say this: whatever way you end up feeding your baby is the “right way”. Breastfeeding is a wonderful way to provide nutrients to and bond with your child. However, we are so fortunate to live in a time where nutritious formula is available to feed your baby, too!! Especially during your postpartum period, be patient with yourself and your baby and go with the flow as best as possible.
1. Pumping is Often Necessary to Establish Supply
Leaving the hospital, you may meet with a lactation consultant who will give you breastfeeding tips before heading home. They may suggest the use of a pump to establish supply, especially if your baby is having trouble latching or staying awake to practice breastfeeding.
Though you can most likely get a breast pump for free through your insurance (it’s definitely covered if you live in the US!), I recommend renting a hospital grade pump from your labor and delivery department. Hospital grade pumps retail for thousands of dollars, so it’s definitely not necessary to buy your own, but in the early weeks it is so beneficial to have a powerful pump to establish your milk supply! I rented the Medela Symphony for one month postpartum and it was a crucial component in my breastfeeding journey.
2. Breastfeeding Can HURT!
For a process so natural to mammals, it sure can lead to a lot of pain for mamas!! Even if your baby is free from latch issues like a tongue tie or cleft lip, nursing can be painful as you and your baby learn how to breastfeed properly.
You will likely experience uncomfortable breast engorgement the first few days postpartum as your milk comes in, and sore nipples as your baby practices latching on. These may be the least of your worries, though, if you encounter some of the more serious and painful breastfeeding problems like I did.
Clogged ducts occur when milk is not effectively removed from your breast, either by your baby or your breast pump. You’ll often know you have a clogged duct when you feel a hard lump in your breast and milk flow is slower than normal. Luckily, these can be pretty easily resolved with breast massage, frequent nursing, and heat (taking a hot shower before a feed or pumping session works wonders!).
If you don’t catch a clogged duct, you may end up with a painful condition called mastitis. I developed mastitis one month into my breastfeeding journey, and the pain was genuinely on the same level as labor contractions!! Not only was my breast bruised, swollen, and hard, but every pump from the machine or such from my baby caused sharp, shooting pains through my entire breast and nipple. You may also develop a fever and other flu-like symptoms, as well as fatigue.
While clogged ducts can be resolved with the simple remedies mentioned above, mastitis is an infection of the breast and requires antibiotics to treat. Continue to nurse or pump frequently and take the full schedule of antibiotics, and you will likely be back to more comfortable breastfeeding in just a few days!
3. You May Need to Supplement with Formula -and That’s OK!
Even though I was nursing on demand and pumping every 3 hours to establish my milk supply, my milk wasn’t enough to keep my son satisfied at first. Your baby is growing at an incredible pace, and they may need more food than your body can keep up with.
In theory, breastmilk operates on a supply and demand system, but especially in the first few months there is a bit of a limit on what your body will produce. 2-3oz per nursing or pumping session is a very normal and healthy amount to make, but I know at least for my son, he could eat 4oz or more every couple of hours when he was barely a month old!
Thankfully, we live in a time period where science has developed healthy, nutritious formula to help our babies grow. Listen to your baby’s cues, and if your breasts (or you!) are currently exhausted, do not be ashamed or afraid to offer formula. Fortunately, most babies can switch between formula and breast without issue, and can even try various types of formula until you find one that works for you. Your hospital will likely give you a plethora of formula samples upon discharge, and you can get more from your pediatrician as well – for free! We received so many free samples of formula that we didn’t have to buy any of our own until our son was over a month old. Take advantage of these offers wherever you can!
4. You Probably Need to Pump Longer
I met with two lactation consultants and read hundreds of breastfeeding resources before and after my son was born, and all of them said that I probably only needed to pump for 15 minutes per session. This was completely FALSE and led to me developing mastitis due to ineffective milk removal!
You need to pump until milk stops flowing from your breast or at least slows down considerably. For me, this meant pumping 30-35 minutes every 3 hours, even after a full nursing session with my baby. Pay attention to your breasts when pumping – they will tell you when you can be done! The worst thing I did was listen to my timer rather than my own body. Don’t make the same mistake!
5. Support Your Breast and Baby’s Head
Unlike my preconceived notions about breastfeeding, it’s not always quite as simple as whipping out your boob and putting your baby to your breast with one effortless swoop. As you are learning to breastfeed, you’ll need to firmly grab your breast and flatten it a bit so that it easily fits in your baby’s mouth, and then bring your baby’s mouth towards your body once they open their mouth wide enough (you can find great diagrams of proper latching here). This takes more trial and error than I thought!
Even if your baby goes an entire day with perfect, easy latches every nursing session, the next day they might have difficulty and become frustrated with the process. The best thing you can do is provide support to both your baby and your breast so the act of latching is easier and feels more secure for you both. As with everything in this delicate postpartum period, have patience with your baby and with yourself – you’ll get it figured out eventually!
6. Drink Lots of Water
Drinking tons of water is so important for maintaining a good milk supply and overall good health! Your body has just gone through something incredible and demanding, and in addition to working on mama’s recovery, it also has to figure out how to make milk consistently for your baby.
It’s difficult to drink too much water, so be sure you’re getting plenty to avoid becoming dehydrated and lowering your milk supply. A good rule of thumb is to drink whenever your baby drinks, and whenever you feel thirsty.
7. Breastfeeding is Magical
Despite all the difficulties you can encounter, breastfeeding is so rewarding when you finally get it down. Even a single successful nursing session per day is enough to fill you with pride in both your baby and in your own amazing body. Especially after overcoming some of the painful and frustrating issues discussed above, getting your baby to nurse effectively feels like a breath of fresh air. Nothing compares to seeing your baby snuggled to your chest so comfortably, and feeling them fall asleep there so satisfied and full from your breastmilk. This bonding time is so magical, it almost makes you forget all the trouble it took to get them there – almost!!
No matter where you are on your breastfeeding journey, take a moment to appreciate your body for all that it does for you, your baby, and your family. You are an amazing being with a unique gift of creating and sustaining life. Whether you breastfeed for 1 week or 1 year, you have so much to be proud of. Your baby loves you and appreciates all of your hard work, mama!!