When I gave birth to my first child, I was young and idealistic. I was also woefully unprepared.
I knew so, so very little, but I knew I wanted to breastfeed. I knew that much.
I told my doctors and nurses that the plan was to breastfeed, and would need them to help me accordingly after the delivery. But what does that mean, “help me?” What should I expect?
The entire affair was a total failure. I was able to get her to latch on just fine, but it was so painful at first that the nurses just brought me random stuff in hopes that I could soften the pain. Eventually, one of the nurses, in a fit of empathy, just brought me batches of formula and encouraged me to try them just so that I could at least rest and not be in pain from both the c-section and the nursing. She was losing weight so fast, she was crying so loudly, it was clear she wasn’t getting anything from me and she needed something.
About a week after my partner, Baby Mini-me, and I left the hospital, a nurse came to our home to check on me, check on the baby’s weight, and check my nursing. She, too, came with a giant container full of packages of formula to give to me. After she gave me a sad song and dance about how my baby was “failing to thrive” and how I needed to consider supplementing with formula, I took the packages thankfully and decided to give up on breastfeeding altogether.
This second time, though, I was determined it was going to be different. I found a delivery hospital that was what is known as “baby-friendly,” meaning their approach to delivery and new-parent/new-baby care is centered around knowing about nursing instead of all of their newborn care knowledge being centered around formula. I found an OBGYN’s office with midwives who were knowledgeable about nursing-centered care. I found books to help me understand what I was getting myself into.
And, still, when I gave birth to a 7lb-ish Baby Sprout, I still struggled to make enough milk to feed him, to the point where it only further exacerbated the post-partum depression I felt. After lots of support and, yes, reading, I finally was able to successfully nurse a giant, bouncing baby boy into his now-toddler era.
Through one failed and one successful attempt to understand what it means to successfully nurse a baby, I have learned a lot. Here’s what I think every parent should know, going into breastfeeding as a newbie, in order to make it as smooth and as non-anxiety producing as possible.
1) Yes, breastfeeding is a metabolic process, which means that the process of making milk actually burns calories and raises your metabolism. Ideally, the female body gains weight during pregnancy and, after delivery, the body slowly peels off that weight in an attempt to fuel the milk making process. This is why some people lose weight from breastfeeding—they factor in the energy burned from breastfeeding into the caloric deficit they’re trying to create. This is also why breastfeeding leaves lots of people starving all the time, omg. It requires energy to complete. Losing weight from breastfeeding requires a very tedious balance of all the necessary variables. You need to eat in order to make enough milk.
Breastfeeding also requires that you stay hydrated, because it also uses a lot of the water stored in your body to make the milk. It was leave you feeling dehydrated, and you will want water far more often than you might be used to.
Basically, successful breastfeeding rarely happens when you’re not taking care of yourself. So, don’t skimp.
2) Make your desires known upfront with all of your caregivers—doctors, nurses, whatever—about nursing, because it impacts the choices they may make in how to care for you. Like, for instance, the way you give birth can contribute to the success you experience in nursing. With the first child, my labor was induced by my partner thinking he was slick and giving me a root beer float doused with castor oil. (I seriously don’t recommend this. It was awful and the complications were mortifying, even though we got a healthy baby in the end.) With my second child, I didn’t go into labor at all. Eddy and I just went into the hospital together, and I had my c-section performed then and there a couple of days after my due date.
For me, I was missing the part of my body actually going into labor. Labor lets the female body know it’s time to start revving up the necessary processes to help bring the little one into the world, and that includes milk-making. This is, to me, further proven by the fact that the process of breastfeeding helps reduce the size of the uterus post-delivery, hence the cramping some people feel. The uterus expands as the baby grows; while it may shrink regardless of whether one nurses, breastfeeding helps the process along much more smoothly.
In their brochure Childbirth and Breastfeeding, the La Leche League—one of the foremost organizations intended to support parents in the journey of nursing—says the following:
A mother’s childbirth experience may affect the start of breastfeeding and the early days with her baby. For example, a difficult labor or medications used during a cesarean birth may make the baby sleepy for several days or decrease the effectiveness of the baby’s suck. A premature delivery is likely to affect every aspect of the baby’s behavior and care. During labor, procedures such as an enema or routine fasting can affect a mother’s self-confidence and well-being. There may occasionally be a good reason for these procedures; mothers can ask for information to help determine if a procedure is necessary. A mother’s partner, friend, or relative who will be at the birth can be an advocate for her wishes. [source]
For my c-section, I was given an anesthetic that didn’t leave Baby Sprout drowsy—or me, for that matter, and we began nursing him as soon as he was cleaned and dressed.
And, while I’m at it, the brochure above also mentioned the need to understand the reason for the procedures you’ll potentially be undergoing, and making sure that the people performing them know you intend to breastfeed can change what they offer you or what will be available to you. Having the baby “room in” with you means your little one will stay with you in your room instead of sleeping out in the nursery. If you’re nursing this is the best bet, because the baby should be nursed at each breast as frequently as possible—more so if you, like me, didn’t go into labor—to help your body prepare for the milk-making process.
3) If you’re told you have to supplement, or if you’re given formula at your hospital, or even if you decide you’re going to give your baby formula instead, guess what? You can still both get the benefits of breastfeeding. One of the greatest inventions I’ve ever owned in my entire life—yes, it’s that serious—is the Supplemental Nursing System, which allows you to give your baby breast milk you’ve already pumped or formula at the breast. It’s a 6-ish ounce bottle that hangs from your neck with a pair of tubes attached which, when used properly, allows the baby to pull milk from the breast while also ensuring they get enough milk for their and your particular situation. (In other words, “enough” may vary depending on the the baby, but whatever the case may be, this might be able to help.)
The supplementer also comes with three different sets of tubes—fast, medium, slow—for every size baby and every level of nursing they need. A baby who has a hard time latching on with the slow tubing because not enough milk is coming fast enough might find it more appealing to latch if one of the faster tubes is connected.
The benefits to this are immeasurable. On top of the bonding that can happen between mom and baby from breastfeeding, the antibodies in your milk help strengthen the baby’s immune system, irrespective of how much (or how little) milk your baby receives. Furthermore, when you consume foods that could be potential allergens, like peanuts, your breast milk teaches the baby’s immune system that peanuts are a friend, not a foe, and to allow him or her to take full advantage of their benefits!
4) There are resources available. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to use them.
a) Thanks to Obamacare, insurance companies are required to provide you with a breast pump, though the size and kind depends on the tier of insurance you have through them. Have your doctor’s office provide you with a prescription for your breast pump, and you’ll pick it up the same place you’d pick up any other prescription. I had my prescription filled at Target, and received an electric double-breast pump completely and utterly free. #ThanksObama
b) There are incredible books available to anyone who wants to understand how to prepare themselves not only with info about what to do when the baby arrives, but also what to do if you hit a snag. I remember posting on my FB page a photo of all the books I was buying in preparation to nurse my first born, and lots of people posted “you don’t need all that! teenage girls in Africa can nurse their babies with no problems, and here you go needing books!”
Well, yeah, I get that, but it’s also almost guaranteed that the “teenage girl in Africa” (???) lives in a community overflowing with support to help her nurse her baby, something I definitely didn’t have. I also didn’t have anyone who could troubleshoot the problems I had with nursing, nor did I have anyone around me to guide me or help me plan ahead. The bulk of the help I had, I got well after I gave birth and was already stressing out.
The books I had—in the photo above—helped me remain calm, helped me feel empowered enough to continue, and encouraged me to push forward. Below are links to purchase them from Amazon and, if you buy using my links, Amazon pays me a penny or two that I can use to buy more books. (And I reeeeally like books!)
c) Get a doula if you can. A doula is the support many of us need, doing everything from helping us at home to advocating for us in receiving the care we need most. So many of us live in communities where the hospitals are understaffed and overworked, and when people slip through the cracks, errors happen in ways that harm the parents and the baby. Making sure that you have someone who knows the process, knows the hospital’s rules and policies, and knows what you want and need is valuable. If you tell your doula that you need to make sure your entire process is centered around the desire to nurse your baby, they can advocate for you in moments when you can’t.
Lots of doulas, like Ancient Song Doula Services here in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, offer services on a sliding scale starting at “free” and ending at “full price,” and the work is incredibly helpful. Some health insurance plans will even cover a doula’s services, specifically because doulas also snoop out hospitals that try to put you through the stress of unnecessary testing (testing that they can bill you and your insurance company for.) Most insurance companies think it’s cheaper to pay for a doula than it is to pay the hospital for random errant x-rays.
(Even if you don’t think you’ll ever need a doula, if you ever have $5 to spare, send it to a local doula who offers free services to women in need. If you can’t find one in your area, send a few dollars to this one!)
Don’t be ashamed to acknowledge that you can’t do it all on your own. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. If you can’t afford the help, don’t be ashamed to leave some things incomplete in order to spare your own sanity. Don’t. Be. Ashamed.
d) Take classes! Lots of hospitals offer free nursing classes to parents who either just delivered or are planning to deliver at their facility. There, you can learn best practices, ask certified lactation consultants questions, and also get some free swag while you’re at it! I have so much Ameda and Medela stuff in my home that I had to add new shelves to my closet for it all, whew.
e) Hire an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) to help you learn the tricks of the trade, and help you stay on top of your technique. These people are incredible resources on virtually everything nursing, and are often incredibly helpful via e-mail well after you’ve had your first visit. Oftentimes, because nursing has psychological and physical health benefits for the mom (it can help with mood adjustment and reduces risk of breast cancer), insurance companies cover visits with IBCLCs, so be sure to check before you spend. And, because you’re not likely to need one until after you’ve given birth, set aside a few dollars each month of your pregnancy to spend on at least that first visit if you need.
If you’re in the New York metro area, check out the NYLCA website to help you find one that can suit your needs.
5) Remember that whatever you do, however you feed your child, you’ve made the choice that best suits you and your family. No one can say which chose is more ideal for you, because no one lives the life you do or experiences the same challenges you do.
However, we can all do something to help make sure that life is easier for those of us who do decide to become parents. When you see a parent out nursing in public, offer a kind word of support, a smile of empathy, a thumb up, or even a nod and some privacy. As often as I’ve seen people complain about people who breastfeed in public, the main thing that they always say is, “why can’t you do that in the damn house?!”
I’ll tell you why they don’t, why they shouldn’t, and why—if you think they should—you should keep it to yourself.
People like me, who’ve struggled with post partum depression even though I did breastfeed, took that sentiment to heart and, because of how often I had to nurse, I virtually never left the house… and the lack of exposure to the outdoors drove me deeper into depression.
Everyone who gives birth has a strange hormonal imbalance immediately after delivery and, because our mood is largely controlled by hormones, we’re all likely to experience mood swings referred to as “baby blues.” But, for some of us, that lingers. We don’t bounce back so quickly. Getting outside, breathing in the fresh air, seeing the wind blow through the trees, hearing children laugh and seeing them play, getting lost in something that allows you to forget what a sour mood you’re in? That’s freeing for those of us experiencing post-partum depression. When you see someone nursing out of their homes, just act with empathy in mind.
If your office doesn’t offer accommodations for working parents and you see someone struggling with the decision to complain, stand behind them. Support them in their desire to work and ensure they’re giving their baby that home-made artisanal farm fresh cage free stuff.
We all should work together to ensure that everyone can make the necessary choices for their families… but until that happens, we can support one another to help get the job done. And really, that’s just as helpful.
What’s the one thing you wish you knew before you (or your partner) started nursing?
PS: Eternal thank-yous go out to all the women who were so gracious and kind to teach me everything I needed to know to successfully nurse my baby. Here’s hoping I did them justice and passed down something valuable to you!