Breastfeeding in the Beginning

Breastfeeding is natural. Breastfeeding is instinctual. Breast is best. We’ve all heard the catch phrases. What many fail to tell us as brand new mamas is that sometimes it can be really hard.

Sure, babies are born with a natural instinct to seek out the breast and suck for comfort, but they aren’t always born with the ability to do it right. Hospitals preach that breastmilk is the very best for your baby, but fail to give much support and advice on how to get started, and then often discharge you with free samples of formula. I realize that not ALL hospitals are like this, but many in the U.S. are.

First attempt at latching on, approx 1 hour old

I thought I was pretty well prepared for breastfeeding when I had my son. I had attended a breastfeeding class while pregnant and was beginning to read articles on Kellymom.

I had the tremendous support of my mom who breastfed all four of her children in the 1970s and 80s when doctors and hospitals were telling new parents that formula was better than breastmilk. My husband was 100% on-board too, especially when he considered the potential cost savings.

When my son was born a couple of weeks early with no complications, the guilt began before he was even 24 hours old. One nurse gave me attitude when he refused to latch on.

Open wide!

I thought for sure I was doing something wrong, yet she offered no help except a frustrating phrase I heard a lot, “If it hurts, then there’s something wrong.”

She brought in a breast pump and frowned even more when I was only able to pump a few drops of colostrum that I collected in a spoon and fed to my son. I felt a lot better with the shift change when a new nurse explained that it was normal for a baby who was technically full-term, but a little early, to be very sleepy and not really latch-on in the first 24 hours.

The next morning he latched on for the first time after his heel prick test. A lactation consultant came by a little later and asked if I had any questions.

His hand was much more interesting

My son was asleep, so she said to call her when he woke up. He woke up about an hour later and my husband gave her a call. He left a message and we began getting our things together to be discharged. We never saw the lactation consultant again and we went home with our new baby, very uncertain about his latch.

At home my milk came in quickly and I was painfully engorged, but I knew his latch was wrong. I knew it was normal for there to be some pain, but this was toe-curling, cuss-like-a-sailor, excruciating pain.

He was also falling asleep when nursing, often after just a few minutes. After a week of tears each and every time he latched on, we learned his bilirubin levels were too high and he would have to spend a few nights in the NICU being treated for jaundice.

I was lucky that my body responded pretty well to pumping, so I was up every three hours to pump and bring in whatever I could to the NICU. When we were there, I nursed him, still dealing with an awful latch. The lactation consultant who was on-call in the NICU came over and worked with me to get his latch correct. He was latching much to shallow, not taking my nipple far enough into his mouth, leaving me severely bruised and bleeding.

I can’t even describe the relief that surged through my body when she got him to latch on and there was no pain. She also spent some time with my husband, telling him the right and wrong ways to support me through this whole breastfeeding thing.

After we got home, it was still rocky with his latch, there were many nights where I felt like giving up, wondering what kind of formula I needed to tell my husband to go out and buy.

Often times, I also had to pump because my son wasn’t drinking enough to relieve engorgement. Thankfully he was still gaining weight, a couple of ounces at a time. By the time he was five weeks old, my poor nipples were healing and we had it down.

The lactation consultant who helped us in the NICU was our lifesaver and my husband’s unwavering support got me though it all.

First true milk coma

We went on to breastfeed for 19 months when he decided he was done and self-weaned. For 13 of those months, I was pumping two to three times a day at work. We had a LOT of bumps in the road, but we made it though and I adored breastfeeding my son. Even though it’s been over a year since he last nursed, I still miss it.

To end, these are some tips I offer any new mama who is beginning a breastfeeding relationship. These are just tips that helped me be successful and still keep my sanity. They are in no way going to be perfect for everyone. My apologies for the length. I don’t intend to sound preachy, I’m just passionate about it.

  • Educate yourself on how breastfeeding works. Learn about the way a baby should properly latch on and the different ways to hold a newborn while nursing. Learn about the supply & demand aspect of breastfeeding and how to maintain your supply. Learn how magic breastmilk is and how it adapts to your baby’s nutritional needs and changes as they get older. Learn as much as you can so you can make informed decisions, even when you’re hormonal. If there are no breastfeeding classes in your area, seek out your local La Leche League and attend a meeting or two while you’re still pregnant. If moms are okay with it, ask if you can watch their baby latch-on so you can actually see it in person. If you can’t do this, look on YouTube for videos of it. Actually seeing a baby latch-on versus reading about it really can make a difference. Kellymom has an amazing library of information on breastfeeding, getting started, nutrition, issues with low supply or oversupply, pumping, weaning, everything! And if you don’t see an article that answers your questions, someone on the forum probably can. A couple of great books include The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and The Nursing Mother’s Companion.
  • Surround yourself with people who will support your decision to breastfeed. If a friend or family member is pushy with formula, then politely ask them to stop or leave. I know it’s harsh, but they are likely projecting guilt about their own experiences with feeding their baby or they simply aren’t educated on breastfeeding and how it works. It’s not something you need to deal with when your postpartum hormones are surging. Also make sure your husband or partner is just as educated as you are on the subject. Their unwavering support is an excellent foundation for your breastfeeding relationship. At 4 a.m. when you are hormonal, in tears and don’t know what to do when your hungry baby won’t latch properly, they will be there with a suggestion on how to hold the baby differently or to rub your shoulders and remind you that you’re doing great. Something as simple as your husband or partner staying up with you and encouraging you to keep going can speak volumes.
  • Take each feeding one at a time. The struggles you had at 9 a.m. won’t be the same ones you face at 9 p.m., nor the successes.
  • Never give up or make a decision about breastfeeding in the middle of the night. All of the negative, hopeless and irrational thoughts brewing in my head would disappear once the sun came up. I don’t know if I was happy to have made it through another night or what, but there was something to be said about seeing the sun rise that gave new hope and energy to the day.
  • If you are struggling, seek out help; ideally from an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. Most hospitals have lactation consultants on staff who will visit you if you give birth in a hospital. But, many times, they can’t or don’t give you enough advice or spend enough time with you to really help (a common hospital booby trap). You can attend a La Leche League meeting before you even give birth to ask questions you might have and to connect with fellow nursing mamas. You can get contact info for lactation consultants there too. You can find lactation consultants online who will come to your house to offer help and support. Some may seem too expensive, but spending $100 on some help can prevent you from potentially spending hundreds more on formula. Even if things seem to be going all right, it can’t hurt to get some reassurance that you’re doing everything right.
  • If you’ve met with a lactation consultant and you’re still struggling, go see another one, and another one… until you and your little one are getting it right. They will all have a different bag of tricks and if one lactation consultant doesn’t have a solution for you, someone else will.
  • I had no formula in the house at the beginning. I figured if it wasn’t there, then it wasn’t an option to fall back on when I was melting down in the middle of the night. I know it’s not for everyone, but I don’t regret that decision at all.
  • If you are ever in doubt, nurse nurse nurse nurse nurse. If you are ever worried about your supply, waiting for it to come in, or think it’s doing anything funky, nursing will always be the best way to keep up a good supply… even if it feels like you are nursing 24/7. There are herbs and foods that can help, but nursing is, and always will be, the best for your supply. Having a good breast pump can help too, but remember that your breasts are designed to feed a baby, not a machine. Your baby will always be better at expressing milk than a pump. And never, ever use pump output to judge how much milk you are producing. It will never be 100% accurate. I know many moms who had plenty of milk for their babies, but were never able to pump more than an ounce at a time.
  • There are a ton of books and experts who are happy to tell you how you should be feeding your baby. Your friends, family and pediatrician will also offer their two cents. It can cause a brand new mama a lot of stress if she receives conflicting information that often goes against what her instinct is telling her. Understand that pediatricians are often not thoroughly educated on aspects of breastfeeding, so it’s quite common for a pediatrician to give wrong advice when it comes to breastfeeding. Don’t be afraid to question advice that you’re told! When all is said and done, you have to tune out everyone and listen to your instinct and your baby and do what works for you and your new family.
  • Try your best to RELAX! I know it’s way easier said than done, especially if your baby has reflux, a bad latch, gas, anything! Babies will often sense when mommy is tense, stressed out or upset and respond in time.

UPDATE: When my second baby was born in April of 2014, the same exact pain coursed through me when he latched on. I dreaded the thought of going through that same pain for six weeks again while we figured out a better latch. My midwife diagnosed him with a tongue and upper lip tie and after she clipped them, his latch improved incredibly. He’s been a champion nursling ever since. She checked my older son’s mouth and, sure enough, he had a tongue tie as well. When he was a newborn, his frenulum stretched out to make nursing easier on me, but it made me sad to think all of the pain I dealt with could have been avoided if his pediatrician or our lactation consultant had checked him for a tongue tie. 

11 Responses to Breastfeeding in the Beginning

  1. Such awesome advice. There are few people who encounter little or no difficulty in breastfeeding, it is so important to have a strong support system in place well before baby arrives! Thanks so much for the great advice.

  2. Great advice! I fully plan to keep this handy when I start out with my baby in September! Thank you!

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  5. Such important information for new moms! Havng unrealistic expectations or little understanding of what’s truly normal in the beginning can really get women off to a rocky start and make them doubt themselves!

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  7. I had the exact same horrible pain and bad-latch problem from day one! This is the first time I’ve read about someone else going through the same issue and making it work. I bled, had bruising, and could never get a good latch through all the pain. It was by far THE hardest part of early motherhood. I ended up pumping instead and was heartbroken the day my bruising healed and I could brave trying to breastfead, only to have my baby reject the breast because of the bottle. It’s nice to read that it finally worked for you. This gives me hope for breastfeeding my next baby!

  8. Good read, good advice. I was determined to breastfeed. I read a ton on it in books and online. I wanted to know everything because I had heard about the pain and problems of others. I even took a class. I, like you, never had formula in the house… I never wanted that option available if I struggled or was tired(and MAN WAS I TIRED!!!!). I am thankful my son latched fairly good, I know that doesn’t happen with a lot, but I feel like my research helped me figure things out. I had to hold him a certain way and hold my breast a certain way for a while, but it worked. We just now hit 15 months and going strong.

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