Grab some popcorn and park your tush if you plan on seeing this tale through to the end. I never expected that I would have so much to say about my breastfeeding experience, but I do—to the point that I’ve once again broken this post into two parts (part 2 to follow). As usual, I relay my experiences not to preach or teach, but for the sole purpose of sharing, inspiring, or simply entertaining.
In The Beginning
While I always planned on nursing my newborn, I never imagined that I would become the huge advocate for breastfeeding that I am now. Truth be told, breastfeeding moms often give off a cult-y vibe that, to me at least, was always very off-putting. I was just convinced I’d never be a part of those over-the-top and in-your-face breastfeeding communities. Lo and behold, these days I’m one of the crazies that you can find shouting “HASHTAG NORMALIZE BREASTFEEDING” from the rooftops … not really, but really. My little and I are still going strong at 3 months with no plans of stopping anytime soon. It is hard and wonderful and demanding and wonderful and exhausting and WONDERFUL!
Why I Wanted To Breastfeed
First of all, I want to say that I am a firm believer in “fed is best” so by no means am I shaming mommies that can’t/won’t BF and decide to supplement with formula. Feed your baby, mama! 🙂 Secondly, I want to point out that I am (obviously) not a medical expert … but rest assured that I have done my thorough research and will include links where applicable.
I wanted to BF because I knew that it was unarguably the best possible thing that I could do for my baby. It’s much more than just deepening the bond between mother and child (although it is a most incredible connection). A lot of people are unaware of all of the amazing benefits of breastmilk itself.
Our bodies are miraculous. The milk that we produce is essentially tailor-made for our littles. It’s true! Check out this unbelievable article explaining how breastmilk literally changes its composition in order to fit baby’s needs. Breastmilk helps babies fight off a wide range of illnesses, infections, and diseases—something that formula (while still a healthy alternative) is unable to do. Family members have asked me things like, “What do you do if you’re sick? You HAVE to give her formula.” No, I actually don’t. This is completely false. Nursing while you have a cold or flu actually passes along natural antibodies to help baby fight off the same illness!
Simply put, breastfeeding exclusively for at least the first six months of baby’s life (if you are able) is invaluable. I was ready and willing to try my hardest to make that happen. For more information about the wonderful benefits of breastfeeding, I highly recommend these articles by Dr. Sears and KellyMom, my go-to sources for verified facts, although there are endless resources via the web and reliable texts (e.g. Mayo Clinic).
What The First Few Days Were Like
While I was mentally prepared to give breastfeeding a go, my body had other plans. The first thing to note is that sometimes your milk supply doesn’t come in for a few days. I honestly believe that this is why most moms back in the day (and maybe even now) used to give up or supplement right away. Though your milk may not be in, your body still produces a thin, protein-rich liquid called colostrum which is basically all that baby needs. Colostrum contains antibodies to protect newborns against diseases. Still, even knowing this, sometimes it’s hard to believe that baby is getting enough when they’re feeding around the clock. As long as 1) that nutrient-rich colostrum (aka: liquid gold) is coming in, 2) baby is wetting/soiling diapers, and 3) baby is gaining weight (although they may lose some ounces before leaving the hospital), rest assured that your baby is being fed! It is important to note that if one of these don’t check out, you should 100% consult your pediatrician about supplementing. Even if you’re unsure, you should always ALWAYS trust your instincts and consult a medical professional. Again, “fed is best” and there’s nothing to feel guilty about if breastfeeding doesn’t work for you and your family.
On to some of the challenges I faced in those early days. My first form of “troubleshooting” began right away in the hospital. For the life of me, I couldn’t get Sophie to latch unless a nurse or lactation consultant was present to help me. I chose to keep her in my room rather than in the hospital nursery, but it just seemed like I was constantly calling the nurses in for help to feed her anyway. She would scream and scream against my chest and my heart would just break every second. I wasn’t sleeping. She wasn’t sleeping. It got to a point where I just laid her in her bassinet to blow off some steam and then immediately cried myself. A nurse walked in and the first thing I said was, “I swear I don’t have post-partum depression. I just want to feed my poor baby.” * What can I say? I have a flair for the dramatics. * I swear that nurse was an angel. She introduced me to a little life-saving tool called a nipple shield. Once she taught me how to use it correctly, we had zero problems getting baby latched.
Here’s the thing. Remember when I said the breastfeeding community is a very cult-y one? I wasn’t kidding. Nipple shields are incredibly frowned upon and basically a big no-no in the breastfeeding world. I guess lactation consultants see it as cheating or something (ridiculous, I know). Every time an LC would come into my room, they’d see the shield and “suggest” that I try nursing without it. One LC actually downright said that the nurse should’ve never even offered me one. I couldn’t see what the big deal was considering baby and I were finally in a groove. Still, they pressured me to keep trying without the shield.
Under their guidance (and insistence), I was always able to nurse without it but again, whenever they left the room, I was lost and Sophie wasn’t latching. I felt like such a failure, and I hate that they brought that out in me. Later on, my nurse came in to see me stressed out and struggling and gave me an uplifting pep talk. She explained that LCs are always going to want you to go the natural route—it’s their job. Still, she stressed that I’m the mother and I have to do what’s right for me and baby. From then on, I continued to use the nipple shield. Regardless of what the LCs had to say, I wanted to breastfeed my baby in whatever way worked. Their methods simply weren’t working for us. If I had listened to them, Sophie would 100% be drinking formula right now, because I would have definitely given up. Thank goodness for my wonderful nurse. Not all medical professionals are created equal. #SorryNotSorry
So, things were okay upon leaving the hospital. When I got home, it was a completely different story. The days weren’t so bad. Sophie nursed and slept, nursed and slept. The nighttime was a whole new ball game. In all of my readings while pregnant, I never came across ANY information about the challenges that I faced over the next few weeks:
1) Cluster Feeding – Oh the joys of baby’s various growth spurts when he/she basically treats you like a bar that’s open 24/7!!! Rather than nursing every 2-3 hours, Sophie would nurse every 30-45 minutes, sometimes even less. This would go on for hours at a time and it was one of the most physically demanding challenges I’ve ever had to face. I only have two pieces of advice here. One, be prepared. Sleep while you can during the day. Mentally note that at X PM you will be awake for X amount of hours. It sounds silly, but I was seriously an emotional wreck (shout out to hubby who had to deal with my crap) until I mentally prepared myself for what was to come. I literally told myself, “Okay. It’s 7:00 PM. Sophie’s going to be nursing from now until 11:00 PM and you will not be able to sleep until then, so settle in.” I surrounded myself with snacks, drinks, books, my laptop, whatever. I watched Netflix well into the night, every night for the first month. My second piece of advice is to try side nursing for days when you are really exhausted and can’t stay awake. I only recommend this if you can trust yourself to do it safely. If so, I guarantee that side nursing will become your new favorite breastfeeding position. Here’s a great tutorial on how it’s done.
2) Comfort Nursing – Sometimes Sophie would literally just stay at my boob until she fell asleep, but cry immediately upon taking her off. It got to the point where I was just sitting on the couch with her for 3-4 hours if not more, with me crying from sleep deprivation. I honestly believed it was only a matter of time before I was hospitalized from exhaustion while recovering from my C-section. I called the hospital so many times with so many questions and one woman finally was able to pinpoint that Sophie was not really eating but comfort nursing. She assured me that if I let her “cry it out” (note: I absolutely hate that phrase) for no more than 5-10 minutes, she would settle down and go to sleep on her own. Let me tell you, while it was the hardest few moments of my life (my little girl has a set of lungs on her), the fifth minute was basically an off switch. She immediately calmed down and drifted off to sleep. She just needed to “self-soothe” rather than rely on my boob for comfort. Eventually, I began introducing the pacifier to help her relax. It satisfied her need to suck on something. So many of them are considered orthodontic-quality these days, so I’m not really concerned about future dental problems like tooth misalignment, etc. Some breastfeeding moms worry about nipple confusion when it comes to pacifiers, but I was very lucky that this was not a problem for us.
3) Engorgement & Clogged Ducts – I shudder just typing these words. I’m sorry to tell you that the pain from becoming engorged and/or having a clogged duct is unreal. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory … especially if you’re using a nipple shield. Though the shield helps with latching, it actually reduces milk transfer. What this means is that 1) baby takes longer to finish eating and 2) baby doesn’t always “empty” each breast … hence engorgement issues. Spoiler alert: we did eventually get rid of the shield, but more on that later. The best advice I have here is to nurse, nurse, nurse. Your baby is really your best friend in this case. Nursing is the most efficient way to clear up clogs and engorgement. Some people suggest pumping as well, but this made things worse for me. Everyone is different though! If it’s not time to nurse, massaging and hand expressing a bit under a hot shower definitely helps. It was the only other thing that provided me with any relief.
4) Sore Nipples – Again, this comes with the territory. First of all, make sure baby is correctly latched. An incorrect latch can make breastfeeding a lot more painful than it actually is. Still, sore nipples are especially common in the beginning when your nipples haven’t had time to “toughen up” to the sensation of breastfeeding. I bet some of you can guess what I’m going to recommend to relieve sore nipples. Yep, good ol’ coconut oil (this is the exact brand that I’ve been using)! I started out with Earth Mama Angel Baby Natural Nipple Butter and it seemed to be working for a while, but then I decided to try my go-to coconut oil and it made all the difference in the world.
5) Blood and/or Milk Blisters – Thank freaking goodness I was blessed enough to only have one blood blister (so far) in my entire time breastfeeding. I can’t even explain it to you without cringing from remembering the pain of it, but it is exactly what you’d imagine it to be. Milk blisters are a little more common, but I’ve never experienced them. KellyMom explains them here. My advice, for blood blisters at least, is to nurse on your good side while pumping on the other until the blister goes away so that your milk supply remains intact. Otherwise, nursing on the bad side is just excruciating. You’ve been warned.
My Experience With Support Groups
Here’s the thing. As much as I didn’t want to be a part of the breastfeeding community, I needed help from people who went through the same experiences and who were available 24/7. Thank God for Facebook. I joined three generic mom groups, one sleep-training group, and most importantly two breastfeeding groups. Right away, I felt this insane connection to a bunch of strangers from all over the world. I completely understand why it’s such a tight-knit community. When I first joined, I merely observed from the sidelines. These women bravely share their trials, tribulations, and accomplishments on a daily basis. There is no shame or judgment whatsoever. Before I knew it, I was posting my questions/comments/concerns on a regular basis too. I was also responding to other mommies who were just reaching the hurdles I recently jumped over (or ran through, lol). I could go on and on forever about how fantastic the support has been from these groups—absolutely invaluable. Anytime, day or night, someone is there with a response to my question. If not, they can empathize. Truthfully, if I could recommend only one thing to the new breastfeeding mother, it would be an online support group similar to any of the ones I’ve joined.
When Things Finally Started To Get Better
So the support groups really began to help in my times of need—so much so that every day I felt a little more confident about what I was doing. Despite the difficulties, I knew I could tough it out and continue this journey. This is all before one horrific night when I lost my nipple shield. I wanted to scream bloody murder. How was I supposed to feed baby?!? There was no way I was about to supplement when I worked so hard to get to this point. Not only that, the last time I supplemented (she had formula once and ONLY once very early on) my poor baby was in agony for two days when she couldn’t poop. It was excruciating to see her in such pain until she finally went. I wasn’t doing that to her again. I closed my eyes, grit my teeth, put her to my naked boob, and hoped for the best. Believe it or not, this little girl latched on like an old pro! I couldn’t believe I was actually nursing her with absolutely no assistance. I did end up finding my shield the following morning, but haven’t needed it since! I am happy to say that Sophie and I have finally found our footing in this journey.
While I still have a lot more to say on this topic (look out for part 2 in a few days), I will leave you with this: you do what is best for you and your baby. Don’t let anyone look down on you for using formula. In the same breath I will tell you that if you can breastfeed, I highly encourage you to do so. Yes, it’s a rough road—I can’t deny that—but it is so rewarding for both you and baby. I’m still so amazed at myself for making it this far. Anything for Sophie!