If I could go back in time to when I tried breastfeeding my firstborn, here’s what I would tell that younger me:
- Ask for help
- Ask for help
- Chill out
- Ask for help
- Ask for help
No book or online resource adequately prepared me for breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is a journey that comes with multiple, often contradictory guides, minimal cultural support in some western cases, and breathtaking, life-giving scenery. My journeys with each child have varied across the spectrum of wretched to wonderful, but I learned a little something along the way.
Breastfeeding the firstborn was a nightmare and lasted a whopping three months. When the nurse would pop her head in and ask how breastfeeding was going, I naïvely told her “It’s going well!” By the time I left the hospital, though, my nipples were destroyed, and I dissolved into ugly, pain-riddled tears each time I tried to feed her. I needed, but lacked the voice, or even hands, of the more experienced to show me the way.
My pediatrician sent me to a lactation consultant a week after my daughter was born. I arrived hormone-addled and weary of what felt like the ultimate failure. When the specialist asked how I was doing, I said, “I would have walked in here topless if I didn’t think I’d get arrested. Pain. Lots and lots of pain.”
Obviously, things had gone wrong in the worst kind of way, and I prayed this stranger could fix it all.
What we learned during our first session was disheartening: she wasn’t gaining weight during feedings, and we had to supplement with formula. Here’s what I would tell the me that was devastated by that news: feed your baby however you are able, and don’t give up on what’s important to you. You have not failed. Also, it’s mostly the hormones that are making you cray cray. Hang in there.
Things improved and were more enjoyable with the second child, and we made it six months. I wised up somewhat and requested to see the lactation specialist before I ever left the hospital with my sweet baby. It made a HUGE difference in the whole experience, and we met more of our goals along the way.
Breastfeeding the third child has been a dream so far (12 weeks), and I’m hoping to continue for at least a year. This time, I asked for help from a certified lactation specialist before I had my baby. I discussed with her my milk supply shortages in the past, and she gave me hope in the offer of help.
I slowly crept up the spectrum of breastfeeding success by asking for more help each time.
Our lactation specialist is a godsend – a magical, incredible, intelligent woman. She has thoroughly studied the experience and mechanics of breastfeeding. The day I gave birth, she visited me in the hospital and corrected what I thought was only a minor issue, but was more severe than I imagined. When we were discharged, she came to my house with her scale and weighed my baby to make sure she was gaining weight in the feedings. Even now, as I prepare to go back to work, she corrected a giant misconception I had about how to build up supply and how to pump. She is only a text away, and I am no longer afraid to ask for help.
The cultural differences in breastfeeding are vast.
I read an article before I gave birth this time about how in some cultures, new mothers are surrounded by the other mothers in their family for the first few months after giving birth. These women serve as guides for the new mothers, literally showing them how to navigate every aspect of this new life as a mother. Furthermore, women who grow up in families where breastfeeding is the norm have a tremendous benefit in just watching and learning. I had no such experience.
I find in western culture that though we often offer support in intangible ways, we falter in the physical and intentional support of new moms. Because of this, we must be willing to ask for help. I literally needed someone to show me how to do it. I needed the hands-on demonstration, as uncomfortable as it may have made me once upon a time. Not every community offers this kind of physical support to new mothers, except for these special, wonderful lactation specialists. One promising development in recent years is the growth in popularity of nursing support groups. What a treat!
If you choose this journey…
If breastfeeding is your goal, ask for help. Seek out help. Don’t walk into it thinking you have all the answers. The breastfeeding journey requires profound humility, appropriate encouragement, and joyful dedication. We’ll get to explore some of the rabbit trails in subsequent posts. Stay tuned!