6 Things I Wish I Could Tell Every Expectant Mother About Breastfeeding
by Jennifer Hafele, Accredited La Leche League Leader
As an accredited La Leche League leader who has been trained to help women with all aspects of breastfeeding — in addition to being an experienced nursing mom myself — there are a few things I wish I could tell every expectant mother planning to breastfeed. Ideally, I would invite you to join me for brunch or tea. We could have a relaxed conversation where you would get your questions answered, find out what support is available if you encounter challenges, and feel empowered to sustain your new little one at the breast. So, in that spirit, I offer you a one-sided “dialogue” based on well over 200 contacts with nursing mamas in the last two years. Here’s what I want to you to know:
1. Breastfeeding is an amazing experience and can be the most empowering thing a new mother can do! Aimee Johnson is a new mom from Eau Claire who got connected with LLL when she was having early difficulties breastfeeding. Her son, Samuel, is now about two months old, and breastfeeding is now going great! But the start to breastfeeding and mothering was rough, after an unexpected turn of events at birth. Aimee says, “When we were struggling at the beginning [with breastfeeding], I kept thinking that all the puzzle pieces were here, but they just didn’t fit together right. I felt like I was failing at nurturing my baby, and I was very vulnerable to emotional hits at that time. But after we got help [two weeks after Samuel’s birth from two LLL leaders], the transformation in our nursing sessions was almost immediate, and the puzzle began to fit together right. It helped me so much to regain my confidence! Once breastfeeding fell into place, the rest of it followed right behind. It helped me feel like, ‘I can really do this!’” Breastfeeding success almost always has the impact of empowerment for mothers, but breastfeeding failure can have very damaging effects on mothers.
2. Breastfeeding is very natural, but it is not necessarily easy. Our bodies are made to nourish our babies at the breast. It is a natural process, but like childbirth, it is not simple or easy. Essentially, breastfeeding works on a supply and demand system. The more milk that is removed from your breasts, the more milk your body will produce. If less milk is removed, your body will produce less. This is why it is natural and normal for your baby to nurse very frequently as a newborn; he is communicating to your body that it needs to supply enough milk to sustain a baby, and it will respond accordingly. Trying to “schedule” a breastfed baby can be extremely detrimental to the breastfeeding relationship because the baby is not able to communicate his hunger messages to Mom the way he should, and her milk supply may drop because of it. “On demand” nursing means baby truly has unrestricted access to Mom’s breasts, and she is not watching the clock to see how long it has been since baby last ate, not trying to “hold him off” another thirty minutes, etc. You do not need to worry about spoiling your baby, because at this point his wants and needs are the same. Dr. Grantly Dick-Read wrote in his book Childbirth Without Fear, “The newborn baby has only three demands. They are warmth in the arms of [his] mother, food from her breasts, and security in the knowledge of her presence. Breastfeeding satisfies all three.” Also, take some encouragement from the fact that the very frequent and exhausting nursing needs of a newborn don’t last very long. After the first four to six weeks, it typically starts to even out and get easier; Mom’s supply is well established, Baby is getting the hang of breastfeeding successfully and is gaining weight. So, how do you get through those first four to six weeks? You need to accept help.
3. Breastfeeding can be very difficult to accomplish alone. One of the biggest predictors of a woman’s success at breastfeeding is how involved and supportive her baby’s father is. His care and support of Mom, especially at the beginning, means Mom can focus on Baby and together they can learn how breastfeeding works. In addition, a strong network of supportive friends and family is essential. And don’t forget helpful community resources like La Leche League and Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC’s). We exist to help you achieve breastfeeding success, so please involve us so we can! It is critical to learn about breastfeeding from reputable sources, and from people who have been successful at it themselves. Well-meaning people can unintentionally cause breastfeeding problems, so be sure your sources are reliable.
4. Breastfeeding, and new motherhood, can be an emotional roller coaster. The hormonal impact on your body of giving birth and beginning to lactate can be intense! Hormones are your friends (establishing your milk supply, bonding with your baby, etc.) but can also seemingly work against you at the same time (post-partum depression, heightened frustration when things aren’t going well, etc.). It is important to recognize that the emotional side of breastfeeding, along with little sleep and low resources, can be so intense that you may be tempted to make decisions “in the moment” that are not in line with your long-term goals. Aimee recalls the first week home with her son: “I had this screaming baby, and I was crying too, and I just wanted to make it better! So I considered just going the route of pumping and bottle-feeding, but somehow I knew that this short-term solution would make much more work for me in the long-term, and I wouldn’t get to enjoy the closeness of actually nursing my baby.” Exclusive pumping is certainly an admirable act, but Aimee realized she wanted the full breastfeeding experience. Aimee and her husband worked really well as a team in helping their son learn to breastfeed, and Aimee credits her partner’s support as a big reason they are breastfeeding today. Aimee wishes they would have had frank conversations ahead of time about what they would do in the event of these “desperation moments,” but she is grateful it worked out for them.
5. It is important to prepare for breastfeeding before you give birth. Expectant mothers have a lot to read up on, and it is tempting to put off breastfeeding preparation until after the birth. However, it is good to have a basic understanding of breastfeeding, and how your birth may impact initiation of breastfeeding, ahead of time. While you are still pregnant, take a breastfeeding class, and attend a LLL meeting to connect with leaders and other moms who are already successfully breastfeeding. Read at least the first four chapters of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by Wiessinger, West, and Pitman (be sure it is the most recent, 8th edition, with the orange/green cover). Aimee says, “I’ve been reading that book you recommended and it’s GREAT! I can’t believe they don’t give every woman a copy at delivery who plans on breastfeeding. If I had had it before Sam was born, it would have answered so many of my questions!” Online, KellyMom.com is another wonderful resource to familiarize yourself with; it is written by a certified lactation consultant. Preparation is important, but, as in childbirth, there are some things you just can’t anticipate until you experience them, so be willing to learn as you go along, too.
6. Seek out qualified help and reassurance. The two most important indicators that a breastfed baby is getting enough milk are wet/dirty diaper output and appropriate weight gain. Keeping a watchful eye on these two things can help you detect a problem early, if there is one, and can help you feel confident in your baby’s milk intake. Again, the first four to six weeks are a critical window of time to establish an abundant milk supply, teach your baby to latch successfully, etc. If you are at all unsure, don’t wait to call and ask for help. It is always better to call and be reassured that things are going well, rather than wait too long to call and by then the problems may have multiplied. Aimee continues to maintain contact with me, and says of our relationship, “It’s really great to know someone is there for us and cheering us on! [At the beginning,] I don’t think I would have been able to go on without your reassurance.” Whether from LLL or from a certified lactation consultant, be sure to reach out for support and ask for what you need; don’t feel like you have to do it all alone!
It is, of course, impossible to know how you will feel about breastfeeding before you actually do it. But with the right combination of knowledge, support, and encouragement, you can succeed at meeting your breastfeeding goals. I will leave you with a quote from my favorite breastfeeding book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, that helps explain the process of learning to nurse your baby: “Someone once said that bottle-feeding a baby is like riding a tricycle: you just get on and you do it. Breastfeeding is like riding a bicycle. You wobble at first, maybe you fall, and there’s certainly a learning curve. But once you know how to ride a bicycle, would you ever go back to a tricycle?” (pg. 101–102).
Nursing your baby is an unparalleled experience and likely one you will never regret. Enjoy!
Jennifer Hafele has joyfully breastfed both of her children and is one of three active, accredited La Leche League leaders in Eau Claire. She can be contacted at LLLleaderjen@gmail.com.
La Leche League of Eau Claire meets twice a month and offers both morning and evening meetings. All breastfeeding mothers and their babies are welcome, for a single meeting or many. Expectant mothers interested in breastfeeding are also highly encouraged to join us for a meeting even before the birth of their babies. Please visit www.lllusa.org/web/EauClaireWI.html for more information.