Before World Breastfeeding Week ends, I want to share a few thoughts with you. I’m currently nursing a 20 month old, while pregnant at 30 weeks, and I nursed my first child until past his 3rd birthday. I suppose that places me squarely in the “extended breastfeeding” category.
I never thought I’d breastfeed for so long. I can remember thinking with my first baby that my goal would simply be to make it to the six month mark. It wasn’t until just recently that I even felt comfortable admitting to nursing a toddler, so writing about it very publicly on the internet is a big deal for me. I am not sure how to describe how I felt. I was confident that my decision was the right thing for me and for my boys, yet publicly I was still somewhat…I don’t know…insecure? I was not embarrassed or ashamed, per say, but I certainly didn’t volunteer the information. I would also often omit or gloss over details, even with close friends or family.
I think partly it was a fear of being either misunderstood, or worse, judged. (The backlash this mother received is enough to scare anyone into silence). When others realized I was still nursing, I would receive “wean him before kindergarten” comments, usually surprisingly from family, and even those were early on, maybe just past the one-year mark. Of course, these comments only made me more hesitant to share my experience.
I also didn’t often share my extended breastfeeding experience because I didn’t want my friends who didn’t or don’t breastfeed to feel that my nursing, especially for so long, was in any way a feeling of superiority. If you’re thinking that contradicts my earlier thoughts on feeling misunderstood or judged, then in a way, you’re right. You see, breastfeeding is a funny thing. As a new mom, I personally felt that I “should” breastfeed. Pro-breastfeeding propaganda met me at every doctor’s visit, in every baby book, and on every baby website. Before having children, I felt that I had to at least attempt to breastfeed, and I think that’s partly where my six month goal originated. I felt society pushed me, as a new mother, to breastfeed. It seemed there were statistics and research everywhere, scaring me further into thinking that if I didn’t breastfeed then my baby would be less intelligent, less secure, that we wouldn’t share a strong bond, and that his immunity would be forever weakened.
However, the same society and propaganda that pushed me to nurse as a new mom made me feel weird as I passed the one year mark and like a complete freak once I was nursing a toddler.
I only know one brave friend who said she didn’t want to breastfeed. Period. Didn’t want to. I admire her so much for knowing what she wanted and for doing what was best for herself, which in turn, is also what’s best for her baby. Every single other one of my mommy friends has said “I tried but didn’t produce enough milk,” or “I did until I had to go back to work, and then I couldn’t pump enough”. I’m sure some of these things are very true, and I know that nursing is a very challenging road for many of us. I know that we work through issue after issue, and that many times, these issues keep us from being able to nurse as long as we had hoped. I am also positive, however, that some of these mothers just did not enjoy breastfeeding but felt guilty or ashamed to admit it because society had made them feel that “breast is best”.
So, I continued to be relatively private about my extended nursing. Since I knew how much it hurt to feel judged, I certainly didn’t want to make my friends, and particularly vulnerable new mommies, feel that I was judging them for not breastfeeding. The truth is I still often wonder at how I ended up doing it for so long myself.
Yet, here I am, almost five years in. The longer I’ve nursed, the more I’ve come across other contradictions in nursing too. For example, everything I initially read made breastfeeding seem like the best diet plan ever. Most of my breastfeeding friends quickly dropped the baby weight and many were even slimmer than before baby; they all chalked it up to the extra calories they were burning while breastfeeding. Me? I can’t seem to shake about ten extra pounds. The baby weight comes off slowly after the first twenty pounds, and I don’t have the same muscle tone I had before, despite being consistent in the gym and eating relatively healthy. Luckily, I was able to read other women’s stories online and learn that I was not alone, that some women hang onto a little bit of “cushion” while breastfeeding.
Another contradiction is this whole idea of breastfeeding being such a sweet time with your baby. I find these stories especially unhelpful when I am asking for help. For example, I mention on Facebook that I am so, so, so tired because my one-year old has regressed and is again waking up almost every hour. In response, another mother, often years removed from breastfeeding, will advise me to just enjoy this sweet and fleeting time.
I realize this is meant to be helpful and to provide perspective in the moment. However, and while she is right – this time is sweet and it is fleeting – I already know that. That thought is what sustains me; it is what keeps me nursing until my babies are ready to wean, but it does not help me with the challenge at hand. I can recognize the truth, and there are moments like one earlier this week – Whitt was nursing and rubbing my very pregnant belly with one hand while his other hand was curled around my finger – that are sweet and incredibly tender. There are moments I want to remember always, wishing I could somehow seer them into my mind. But, I also have many moments of wishing he would nurse faster or being irritated that I am the only one that can comfort him sometimes, or just feeling like I don’t want to be touched right now. I remember one friend telling me she nursed her first baby but not her second because she “wanted her body back”. I was pregnant with my first at the time, and I can remember thinking that she meant she wanted to diet and get back in shape and felt that breastfeeding would limit her ability to do so. I’m sure that was partly what she meant, but after nursing two babies, I now know that she probably more meant that she “wanted her body back TO HERSELF”. She did not want to share her body or be physically at the beck and call of another person, no matter how incredibly adorable that little person may be. I understand her feelings, and there are days when I want my body both back in shape and back to myself.
Haley wrote about being “touched out” this week too; again, it is the stories of other mothers that have been so helpful in making me feel like I’m not alone on this breastfeeding journey. After seeing the #normalizeit hashtag on Instagram this week in conjunction with the beautiful #worldbreastfeeding pictures, I realized that I wanted to feel that breastfeeding is “normal”, despite it’s contradictions. So, I asked Eric to snap a (modest; can’t completely change who I am) picture of myself nursing Whitt and started on this post. And, then I sat on it. I was (and still am) nervous about sharing the picture on Instagram or telling my story here on the blog.
Despite my fears, I’m hitting “publish” today. I’m going to share my best tips for breastfeeding here. My hope is that these tips will help another mother who will help another and that, together, we can #normalizeit. I am intentionally not citing any research or statistics. My goal is not to convince you that breastfeeding is best. I’m not convinced myself. Breastfeeding is hard. Breastfeeding is not glamorous.
But, for me, it has been so worth all of the ups and downs and bends in the road. My goal is to support you if it’s the path that you to find yourself on.
One more thing, I’m not a lactation consultant, and I have no medical training. This is simply my advice, based on my nearly five years of breastfeeding.
1. Seek professional help. My husband and I met with a doula/lactation consultant/infant nurse (she was all of the three) in our home before and after we had our first baby. What I learned from her was incredibly valuable. So, seek out a lactation consultant and ask her a million questions. Let her touch you and show you how to get the baby to latch properly. The touching thing, the stranger-grabbing-your-engorged-breast thing is awkward, I know, so awkward, but I promise it will be helpful.
2. Get the proper latch. I’m not sure why it is difficult to get the right latch, but it is, especially at first. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that this is natural or instinctual for babies. Trust me, they need help. What’s worked best for me is to grab my breast behind the nipple with my hand. I place my thumb on top and fingers on the bottom, with my thumb and index finger facing outward, and then I place my nipple into the baby’s mouth. (Terrible visual, but picture yourself giving someone else a bite of a thick sandwich.) It’s hard to explain, but I use my breast to gently push the baby’s lower jaw down, before placing my nipple in his mouth. I do this to make sure the baby has a wide open-mouth latch and that my nipple and areola are fully in the baby’s mouth. My boys have a tendency to fold their lips under while latching. So, once latched, I use my finger to gently pull the baby’s lips open/up. In my experience, a proper latch is important for a couple of reasons; it will help prevent some discomfort for you, and it will help the baby eat more efficiently.
3. Be prepared to nurse often; a baby’s tummy is tiny. One of the most helpful things that our doula did was to bring a baggie of various-sized balls (marble, ping pong ball, etc) with her to show us how large a baby’s stomach is at different ages. Seeing how tiny a baby’s stomach actually is/was helped me through so many sleepless days and nights. When my newborn would want to nurse every hour, I would remind myself visually of those balls. I would imagine how small his tummy was and how little he was able to ingest, in contrast to how many calories he needed to grow and develop. I googled and found a similar image at Babies First Lactation blog; I hope it’s as helpful to you as the baggie of balls was to me in those early weeks.
4. Have a glass of water and a snack on hand at all times. I am never hungrier or thirstier than I am during my first few weeks postpartum. And, I swear, I get the worst cotton mouth the minute I sit down to nurse. Make sure you have a glass of water or something to drink before you sit down to nurse.
5. Only offer one breast/side per feeding. I got conflicting advice here, even from the lactation consultants at the hospital. But, the doula/lactation consultant I trusted most told me to offer one side, so this is the advice I went with. Again, I’m not a medical professional and have no training, I am only sharing what works for me. And, what works for me is to only offer one side at a time. Once I started pumping, I could understand why this was true for my own body. I have a second let-down around the 18-20 minute mark of pumping. This second let-down is the rich, nutrient-dense hindmilk, as opposed to the more watery thirst-quenching foremilk. If I switch sides, then my babies are not satisfied because they’ve not received the rich hindmilk. I also think, for me personally, that the longer I let them nurse on a side, the more I was able to produce on each side. Again I received conflicting advice, but after doing more research, I think the general consensus is to offer one side per feeding.
6. Trust your own body and let it be your guide. I know one friend who had one breast that produced more milk than the other breast; my advice to not switch sides would not be best for her. In her case, it may make sense to always start with the less productive breast and then switch to the more productive one. I have another friend who always switches sides and has nursed two babies successfully. So, listen and learn from other mothers, but in the end, do what works best for you and your body.
6.5 Trust your baby’s body too. Pay attention to your baby’s bowel movements and general comfort when you’re nursing. There is conflicting information regarding the extent to which a mother’s diet affects the baby, but in my experience, my diet affected their comfort. Both of my boys reacted when I ate/drank dairy. Harrison’s stools changed in consistency and became almost like silly string, and Whitt was very gassy. If I didn’t eat dairy, they immediately seemed better. Neither of my boys was “allergic” to dairy, and they both outgrew these symptoms after a while, but they were clearly sensitive to dairy early on. Again, I’m glad I trusted my gut (no pun intended) and eliminated dairy despite the conflicting medical information. (This was torture when my friends lovingly brought over the most decadent lasagnas and cheesy casseroles.)
7. Record feedings (and bowel movements and nap times). In the early days and weeks (and often months, if we’re being honest), I am too tired to remember when I fed the baby last or on which side. So, I recommend that you write this stuff down at first. It is helpful if your husband/mother/friend is helping with some bottle feedings too. And, it is great to take this record to the pediatrician visits as a reference too. I tried to “wing it” with my second baby, to go with the flow, but I’m buying a notebook specifically to record this stuff with baby number three. I’m old fashioned and prefer paper and pen, but you could use a phone app, or something like an Itzbeen too.
8. Learn to nurse lying down. It took me several attempts and another visit from the doula to master nursing while lying down, but what a lifesaver it was. Seriously, there were times I felt too tired to hold the baby or times I would catch myself falling asleep while nursing in the chair. Nursing while lying down meant that, if I did fall asleep, at least the baby would not fall from my arms to the ground. (If you’re reading this, please don’t share any thoughts on co-sleeping. I’m simply saying this is what worked for us. We can debate the safety and merits of cosleeping in another post.)
This is how I do it: Place the baby in the center of the bed. Lie down so that the front of your body faces the middle of the bed. Put a pillow behind your back. This will allow you to lean slightly back, to relax a little, and to slightly elevate your bottom breast. When my babies are super tiny, I need to elevate my breast even further, so I tuck a hand towel, burp cloth, or clean diaper under it. As my babies get larger, I find I don’t need to do this. Use the “sandwich” method I described in step 2 to latch the baby. Finally, find a comfortable spot for your bottom arm. I tend to extend my arm straight out, and I find that this stabilizes me even further and keeps me from feeling like I will roll towards the baby.
9. Don’t supplement with formula. As a general rule, if your baby is healthy and is growing at each doctor’s visit and is peeing and pooping regularly, then I would personally not supplement. I don’t think formula is bad. I’ve given both of my boys formula (this is my favorite), and I think the formula/breastmilk balance is something that’s helped me nurse for so long. I’ll talk more about this in another post, but in those early weeks of trying to establish a solid supply, do not supplement with formula. (If formula is medically necessary for the baby to grow and thrive, then of course I don’t recommend against supplementing.)
This was challenging for me, especially with my first baby. He was very jaundiced, and one of the pediatricians in our group pressured me to supplement with formula to help speed the elimination of bilirubin from this system. But, I trusted my gut, and I knew that the baby was nursing frequently and that he was peeing and pooping often too. I spent some time on reputable breastfeeding and medical sites doing research (not WebMD or babycenter, thankyouverymuch). So, I disregarded what the doctor said and kept nursing exclusively. Instead, I made a few follow up appointments so that we could monitor the baby and immediately catch any issues. And, with each pediatrician visit, the baby and the jaundice improved. Another pediatrician in that same group said that because breastfed babies are often more jaundiced than non-breastfeed babies, he can’t help but wonder if bilirubin has some sort of protective prophylactic property that is not yet understood.
10. Find a support system. I suppose nursing comes easily and naturally to some of us. But for the rest of us, breastfeeding is hard. Breastfeeding is not convenient. Breastfeeding is hardly instinctive. I used to wonder why it was so hard for me, yet mothers in third world countries were able to do it without the help of doulas or lactation consultants or books or kellymom.com. Then, I realized it’s because they have a “tribe” (I don’t necessarily mean this literally, although it is in some cases). What I’m saying is that in other cultures, more so than in America, women are surrounded and supported by the help and wisdom of other mothers. They watch and learn from each other. They help each other. Breastfeeding (and breasts for that matter) are not socially taboo. Before I had children, I don’t remember seeing another woman breastfeed. That’s right, I don’t think I had even seen anyone breastfeed in person. Never. Ever. So, find someone you can ask questions. I had a friend from work that I knew I could ask a million random questions, and I am so thankful for her friendship and support and wisdom (Bonnie, thank you). It was such a relief to know she was just a quick text or email away when I needed something.
Fellow mothers – How can we encourage each other? How can we make sure that new moms feel empowered and educated to make the right feeding decisions for their babies, whether that be bottle or breast? What bottle feeding tips do you have? What breastfeeding tips would you share? Please add them in the comments below. And, please let me know if you have any questions. I will try to address them in the comments or in a follow up post. Also, I’m working on a follow up post for tips on pumping and extended breastfeeding. What questions do you have regarding pumping or for nursing toddlers?