Note: Breastfeeding is a personal choice and I've hesitated to write much about it because, like my choosing a natural birth and to be vegetarian, it can make people feel attacked and become defensive just by raising the subject. Know that I respect all choices and love you all. I feel deeply for those women who wanted to breastfeed but it didn't work out for them, so I hope that I don't hurt anyone with these words discussing my own experience breastfeeding and my advice to others hoping to breastfeed someday.
Dear Future Breastfeeding Mama,
I'm writing this letter to you because it was the letter I needed to read in those early weeks after my son's birth. Perhaps you are not as naïve as I was, expecting the whole pushing-a-child-out-of-you part to be the end of the physical difficulties of having a child. I found myself in tears, in pain, and frustrated four days after giving birth, unsure if I was doing it 'right.' Everyone told me breastfeeding was easy, painless, unless something was wrong, and natural. I scoured the internet for help and skimmed countless breastfeeding books, hoping to figure out what I was doing wrong, since surely pain was a sign that something was wrong.
I survived those first few days, and have been exclusively breastfeeding for almost 4 months now. I have a few things I wish I'd known then that I'd like to share with you.
It's probably not going to be easy or painless. I don't tell you this to scare you away or so that you know what you're getting yourself into, but just so that you're not worried that something is wrong when it hurts for the first few weeks. The lactation consultant at the hospital told us that it should be absolutely pain-free. I was in an incredible amount pain (tearing up every time Gabe latched on), and feared that I was doing permanent damage to myself by allowing him to latch incorrectly. We saw a lactation consultant when Gabe was eight days old, and she assured us that we were doing perfectly. Apparently, the pain is normal. But no one told me that. So, I'm telling you: pain is normal. And it's worth getting through. Promise.
On that note, pick out a baby-friendly hospital, if possible. The hospital I gave birth at is striving become one; the nurses were all trained to help with breastfeeding, and the lactation consultants were absolutely fabulous, kind women who helped me immensely. They taught me how to hand express so that my milk came in faster, and worked with me to get the latch right. I also got one free follow-up visit, which did wonders for my self-confidence in my ability to feed Gabe. My hospital played a huge role in getting our breastfeeding off on the right foot.
Get that baby on your boob within an hour of birth and before he's bathed. Room-in with the baby and refuse pacifiers and bottles. Babies are amazing and can find the boob right after birth, even though they can hardly see. Their first latch is what they end up preferring, so make sure it's you.
Get your husband on board. Although Mike was the only husband (or male) in our breastfeeding class, I am SO glad he came. It was good to have a second set of ears learning all that we did. He is our biggest advocate and supporter, and I know I could not have done this without him. He comforted me when I was in tears, helped Gabe latch correctly, and found videos online to help us see how latches should look during those first few difficult days. He is a huge reason why this worked for us.
Remind yourself why you're doing it. Maybe it's for the benefit of the baby, maybe it's for your benefit (an excuse to eat more cookies, perhaps? No judgement.), maybe it's because everyone you know breastfeeds, maybe it's the convenience-factor, or maybe it's because it's free and free is all you can afford. Whatever the reason(s), talk about them with your husband/significant other and think about them when you're struggling. Mentally prepare yourself to know that it might not be easy (and then if it is? A happy surprise!).
Get help early. If you need it, reach out to other moms or a professional lactation consultant. Don't let problems persist for even a week before getting help. Correctly any issues early on will benefit you down the road. So stop being lazy about calling the lactation consultants (now I'm just talking to myself. Pardon me.)
Nipple shields aren't for everyone (well there's a sentence I never expected to be on my blog). In fact, they should only be used in extreme cases. Introducing a shield can make the baby prefer the shield and be unable to eat without it. I was intending to get one (despite my lactation consultant's advice otherwise), due to the Intense Pain of the first few days, but Target was, thankfully, out of them. Your body just needs time to toughen up and get used to a baby. Be patient with yourself and there's no shame in popping some Motrin when needed (like, every six hours for the first two weeks).
Nurse often. It prevents all kinds of icky problems like blocked ducts and mastitis and keeps your supply up. Good things, all around.
Don't give up. Set a goal for yourself, and reevaluate then. I remember thinking just three weeks sounded years away those first few days. But it gets better and better, easier and easier. And from my vantage point? It's almost second nature by now.
Know that you are in charge at the hospital. You. You are your baby's advocate and you call the shots. Don't let anyone boss you around or make you feel like you don't know how to be a mother. (My friend Manda actually just wrote a fabulous post about this. Check it out. And this summer, my aunt defied the NICU nurses and breastfed her baby despite their insistence that they wouldn't know how much he was eating.) Rebel mamas are cool. Or, you could just be a wimp like me and choose a hospital that you know will support you. :)
If you plan to exclusively breastfeed, don't keep formula in your house for the first few weeks 'just in case.' It will be so tempting, when you're tired and frustrated and in pain, to just mix a bottle for baby. I remember feeling jealous of friends who'd decided not to breastfeed, just because it seemed so much easier than dealing with the pain and struggle of teaching a baby to latch properly (not anymore; I would not enjoy having to deal with mixing and washing bottles). If I'd had formula in my cupboard, Gabe would have gotten some, just to give me a break. Not the end of the world, of course, but if you supplement early with formula, it can really hurt your milk supply, since your supply is rather sensitive in those first few weeks. If you do decide to feed your baby formula, there will be time to run to the store.
Finally, be kind to yourself. Although 90% of babies are born at full term, your baby might be born early, and then all your plans for nursing might be adjusted if the NICU gets involved. Know that you will love and adore your little baby, no matter how you feed him. And he will love and adore you right back.
Much love. You'll be a great mom.