Your Breastfeeding Survival Guide
“Breastfeeding is natural.” That’s a phrase you’ve probably heard a thousand times by now, and it’s true. Women have been feeding babies with their bodies ever since there were women and there were babies. But that does not mean it is easy (it also doesn’t mean that’s the only way to feed a baby, but more about that here). Breastfeeding is, in fact, a learned skill. You—and your baby—will have a learning curve, maybe a little one, maybe a medium one, maybe a big one.
“Sometimes it takes a little bit before mothers and babies get the hang of it,” says Kathy Kendall-Tackett, PhD, a health psychologist and internationally board-certified lactation consultant (and all-around breastfeeding and maternal mental health expert) in Austin, Texas.
Don’t expect to have a home run your first time at bat. It’s going to take practice, and you may hit many foul balls. You may get hit in the head by one, and it’s possible you could strike out. And I may have taken this metaphor too far. Here’s a game plan (sorry, couldn’t help myself) for your early days of breastfeeding.
GET SUPPORT AFTER BIRTH:
“Take advantage of the free help you get in the hospital as much as you can,” recommends Ayelet Kaznelson, IBCLC, a lactation consultant in New York City. “Whether there is someone who comes to your room or you go to a class. Getting good information while you are in the hospital can make a big difference.”
Go to as many classes or ask for as many visits from the lactation consultant as possible. Even if you are just receiving positive reinforcement, those visits will help you feel confident when you leave. And, if you are having difficulty, you can ask all your questions, show them what’s happening, and get hands-on help to make changes. If the support in the hospital is not available for any reason, you can also call in an outside consultant to visit you (more about how to find one here).
LINE UP HELP FOR HOME:
Reach out to a local lactation consultant or breastfeeding class near your home. See here for tips on finding them. If the person you are working with is not supportive of you and your efforts or is making you feel worse emotionally, look for another. It’s important that you feel heard and understood.
WHEN IN DOUBT, REACH OUT:
There are all kinds of reasons why the beginning of breastfeeding can be bumpy, so “don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions,” says Kendall-Tackett. “It doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong, but it’s easy to get hung up thinking you are. Even if you just need someone to tell you that you are doing a good job, you can reach out and ask for someone to talk to you about that.”
At the “first sign of trouble,” Kaznelson recommends “lining up some support, so you can address it as soon as possible. The sooner you address any issues, the less serious they will become.”
EXPECT UPS AND DOWNS:
“Nursing can be a bit of a roller-coaster ride,” says Carrie Bruno, IBCLC and founder of the Mama Coach in Calgary, Canada. “One feed, you think, I got this; we’re good, and the next feed, you will think, I’m starving him; why won’t he nurse?”
Bruno also likes to prepare women for an intense feeding frenzy that may hit on day two. “Women often do well in the first twenty-four hours after birth, because they are kind of running on adrenaline, and then quite often on night two, it’s physiological for babies to want to nurse and nurse and seem like they are never satisfied. They are wired to do that to help Mom’s milk come in. I like to prepare women for that, because that is often when the crash and burn comes in. I find that informing them of that is key.”
BUT ALSO EXPECT IT TO GET EASIER:
“The first few weeks can be overwhelming,” acknowledges Kaznelson. “You are sleep deprived and waking for frequent and long feedings and worrying about whether your baby is getting enough and so on. But that investment pays off later, because it becomes so much easier. The adjustment period is relatively brief—although intense—and that doesn’t just go for breastfeeding.”
Overall, “you should see an upward trend. Within two weeks, quite often you will feel good about it. Your baby is getting food. You’re not hurting, and we would say breastfeeding is ‘established,’” says Bruno. “That’s the average.” But an average is just that; your experience may fall outside of that. That’s okay, but if it is feeling very hard, not improving with professional help, and affecting your emotional experience as a mom, you may want to consider reevaluating how you are feeding your child.
DON’T PUNISH YOURSELF IF IT DOESN’T GET EASIER:
You have other options. Continue to “If Breastfeeding Is a Struggle,” here, to read about them.
Definitely Get Help Right Away If:
• It hurts. “Don’t grin and bear it,” says Bruno. “There will be some tenderness involved, because we haven’t used our nipples this way before. But if it hurts, reach out for help right away.”
• Thinking about breastfeeding makes you anxious, upset, or causes dread. “If there is anything that is not sitting well with you, contact someone,” says Kaznelson. “Maybe you just need some reassurance from someone on the phone, run your experience by someone.”
• Your baby doesn’t seem settled after feedings. “A newborn who is feeding effectively will feed frequently (every two to three hours is average), then settle into sleep until she starts to cue that she is hungry again,” says Bruno. “If your baby won’t stop crying and does not seem settled, reach out for help to make sure she is getting the calories she needs.”
• Your baby won’t wake for feedings. “All newborns are at risk for jaundice,” says Bruno. “If your baby won’t wake to feed, it could be a sign she is jaundiced, so bring her into your pediatrician right away.”
• Your baby is not gaining weight or doing so too slowly. One advantage to meeting with a lactation consultant in person or at a class/clinic is that they can weigh your baby before and after a feed and make sure he or she is getting enough. If your pediatrician expresses concern about your baby’s weight gain and suggests supplementation, meeting with a lactation consultant can help you come up with a plan to do so and to improve feedings.
• Your baby is showing signs of jaundice, a yellow tint to the skin or eyes, or not waking to feed.
• Your baby has fewer wet diapers. For instance, dry diapers for longer than a six-hour period.
• Your baby shows signs of hypoglycemia, such as a low body temperature, shaky hands, a blue tint to their skin, high-pitched inconsolable crying, or seizures.
Been There, Done That: Moms Talk About the Beginning of Breastfeeding
The first time, I really wasn’t doing it right, despite the help of a midwife at the hospital, and I was in pain for the first few months. It took going to some La Leche League International meetings to get it right. We just need to know how to get the proper support, and that usually means having someone after you are home really be there to watch what you’re doing and give advice.
—ELIZABETH, ATLANTA, GEORGIA
I wish someone had prepared me for the possibility of my milk not coming in. I had no idea it could be delayed. I also didn’t know I could be supplementing with formula or donor milk, and my baby’s weight dropped dangerously. I would have supplemented much sooner if I’d known. We went on to breastfeed exclusively for nine full months.
—LAURA, NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Breastfeeding was hard at first because of blisters, but once those resolved—and it was a brutal week or so—it got much easier.
—JAMIE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA
I had no idea breastfeeding would be so challenging in the beginning! Having support from friends in my new momsupport group helped, as did seeing lactation consultants. You don’t just pop your kid on your boob and live happily ever after. It takes patience and a whole lot of practice.