Let’s be realistic about breastfeeding in the early weeks – it’s hard, it hurts, and it’s traumatic
About 6 weeks ago we welcomed our second daughter into our family. Her birth brought back the traumatic memories of my struggle breastfeeding my first daughter, and presented its own challenges in the first few weeks.
At the breastfeeding class, it sounded so simple and wonderful. But, the reality is that in the beginning, it is HARD. I believe that realistic expectations will help you succeed, so here are some things to be aware of in the beginning (first 4 weeks, give or take).
1. The impact is just as emotional as it is physical.
Things didn’t go well when I breastfed my first-born. I had to pump from day two, she didn’t gain weight, I got mastitis and spent days in the hospital when she was a few weeks old.
All of this was physically draining, but even more so, it took a substantial emotional toll. It took many months to feel like I was myself again after her birth. I had no energy physically but mentally was also not right. Compared to my second, it is completely different, and I think it is partially because breastfeeding went smoother this time around. Still, we had about a week where she wasn’t gaining weight, because of an issue with the breast shield (a nipple-shaped sheath worn over the areola and nipple during breastfeeding.)
During that time, I felt the emotional toll, and I was slipping back into the dark place from before.
Know this: if you have trouble, you are not alone if you’re feeling despair or inadequate. You’re awesome, you can get through it. The decisions you make are yours, and they are for the best for you, your baby, and your sanity. I wish more lactation consultants would address the psychological impact of feeding issues to help moms get through the rough patches both physically and emotionally.
2. It hurts.
“They” say that it is not supposed to hurt, if you latch properly. That is true, but not in the beginning.
Your nipples are being sucked on, by a tiny mouth, for hours a day. Of course it hurts! It hurts when they first latch, when your shirt or bra touches your nipples, in the shower, when you look at them.
My lactation consultant said that some pain is normal and it would get better. It did, eventually. But instead of lovingly gazing at my newborn and singing sweet lullabies, I was gritting my teeth and breathing deep.
Sometimes it will hurt so much that you dread the next time she cries or wakes up, because you will have to feed her. It’s okay, I did too. And if you can muster through, it will get better. But I definitely understand why pain is the number one reason women stop breastfeeding.
3. Breastfeeding requires 3-4 hands initially.
In awe of the woman at the table next to you who just popped her baby onto her breast one-handed while downing a burrito with the other? That’s because her baby is 6 months old, and she’s done it 10,000 times. Don’t expect that in the first few weeks you can do anything at the same time that you feed your newborn. It takes concentration, skill, and hands. More hands than you have, which is inconvenient.
Newborns are wriggly, and you need to hold your newborn at your breast to teach him/her to latch. You need to hold your breast for the proper angle. And, you might have to compress your breast to encourage milk production. Sounds like 3 hands to me, and that doesn’t include sipping water or snacking. You can get there, just give it time. Earlier today, I was feeding my daughter, pumping the other breast, eating soup, and calling an oven repairman.
4. It’s messy.
When your milk comes in, it’s fast and furious, which means your boobs will leak everywhere.
You, your baby, your shirt, your couch, and your dog will be covered in breast milk. Eventually this stops as your breasts adjust to what your baby needs. But at first, it is not pretty – make sure you have burp cloths everywhere, and yell at anyone who moves them away from arm’s reach.
5. Babies need to learn how to latch.
The instinct is there, but it is not likely that your baby will do it correctly at first. You will have to patiently train him to feed properly, all while enduring painful nips and nibbles. If you don’t do it correctly, your baby won’t get enough milk, and you can get hurt. Which leads to…
6. One bad latch can injure your nipples.
If you incorrectly latch your baby and leave her there, at the end of the feed you may have a cracked and sore nipple. Initially, you feed every 2 hours at least. That’s not enough time for your nipple to heal. If you continue to hurt your nipples, you might have to pump instead of breastfeeding so they can heal.
This happened with my first. I spent the first night incorrectly feeding my baby. By the morning both of my nipples were so cracked that I had to pump instead of feed her. It’s frustrating to break a latch and try again, but it’s worth it to avoid cracked nipples and pumping.
Here’s my encouragement to make breastfeeding more bearable in the early weeks.
7. Get help.
I didn’t take any chances my second time around with cracked nipples or needing to pump. At the hospital, every time my baby wanted to feed, I called a nurse (or the lactation consultant) to help me latch. Was I annoying to everyone? Probably. But I didn’t get cracked nipples. And I was low maintenance in other ways, I swear. I also got a great pep talk from a friend when I was having a down-spell. She encouraged me by sharing her own struggle the second time around. Talk about it with your breastfeeding friends. Chances are they can relate, or at least make you laugh.
8. Be proud of yourself.
If you even spent one day breastfeeding, I’m proud of you. Be proud of yourself for every single day that you do it. Be proud of yourself no matter what decision you make.
9. Be patient with yourself and your baby.
Lower your expectations in the beginning. Everyone’s new at this, you and your baby are learning. Take a breath. Find a positive mantra or a happy place to get you through.
10. It gets easier as baby gets bigger.
Your nipples and breasts will get used to the feedings as the weeks pass. Your baby’s mouth also gets bigger, which makes it easier. For me, it took about 4 weeks. For you, I hope it is sooner!
Everyone is different, with different experiences. But, you aren’t alone if you are having difficulty. If it works out, that’s awesome, but even if it doesn’t, YOU are still awesome.