10 Things I Wish I'd Known About Breastfeeding
Like many women, I was planning on trying to breastfeed my baby. But I had no idea how hard it would be — physically and mentally. Seems like mothers who have done it know this — but don't tell you. So here are some things new mothers should know:
1. You need to prepare for It.
When I was pregnant I spent weeks — if not months — on my registry, planning out every inch of the new baby’s room. If only I’d spent one iota of the time learning about breastfeeding: when to start (right away), how to take care of my breasts (steam daily, lubricate every time), how to increase milk supply (by pumping).
I took the birthing class telling us what to expect during labor, but I should have taken the breastfeeding class, too. Soon after I gave birth, I gave myself a crash course by buying a Dummies guide and joining a local lactation class.
2. It’s physically draining.
I knew being a new mom would be tiring but I assumed that was solely from the lack of sleep. I had no idea how physically draining it is to nurture another human being! Nursing burns about 500 to 600 calories a day — the equivalent of an hour run or three hours of yoga.
You have to always be chugging water (16 ounces every hour), and keep eating, healthily, which is hard when you have no time. You’re also sitting all the time, especially at first, when nursing can take 45 minutes. You have to watch your posture or you’ll end up with an emergency chiropractor appointment, as I did.
3. It shouldn’t be painful.
“People say, “It’s going to bleed, it’s going to hurt, you’re never going to be able to leave your baby,’” said Dr. Linda Dahl, ENT and author of Clinician’s Guide to Breastfeeding.
If it’s painful, she said, something’s not right — and despite popular advice, it’s usually the baby, not the mother. “Most breastfeeding problems — a sleepy baby, colicky baby, or pain — can be traced back to baby’s inability to gape normally.”
Dahl, a mother who had trouble nursing her own baby, has performed a frenotomy — snipping of the tongue — on 9,000 infants to help them nurse properly. “You’re not supposed to have pain, period.”
4. It can ruin your sex life.
After having your breasts suckled on and stretched for a good portion of the day and night, the last thing many women feel like doing is having sex (even after they get the six-week go-ahead from their doctors). Not to mention ... who has the time?
Newborns need to eat every 2½ to 3 hours, and each session can take 45 minutes. That leaves you roughly an hour and change between feedings, in which you can either eat, sleep, shower, clean up, or make whoopie.
5. It’s a turn-on.
That being said, breastfeeding is sexy. I know it sounds weird. But when you nurse, your body releases oxytocin, the same hormone released during orgasm. Your body also releases prolactin, creating a feeling of relaxation.
Nurses at the hospital recommend you strap your baby on at first because you might fall asleep in the beginning. (I kept dozing off.) You also feel so enamored with your baby, you don’t really feel like you need anything else. (See #4.)
6. It can create unequal parenting.
No matter how equal a marriage you have, and how much your partner wants to do, when you're breastfeeding, you’re solely responsible for the new baby.
Sure, he can help — feeding you, setting up your nursing station (where you inevitably forget your phone), but he can’t wake up in the middle of the night and he isn’t tethered to the house at all times. Be sure to find baby and daddy time — both to include him and to not get stuck doing everything.
7. Pumping’s a bitch.
The only way to spread the breastfeeding around is to pump. It’s a wonderful modern invention, the electric pump: it allows you to extract milk from your breasts and either store in the freezer for future use or put it in bottles so someone else can feed your baby (read: husband in the middle of the night). It will allow you to go back to work and continue breastfeeding. It also can help increase your milk supply.
But be warned: It’s not fun. If you’re at work or out, you’ll have to find someplace private to sit for 20 minutes, where no one will see you being milked like a cow. It’ s also expensive.
Breastfeeding is great because it’s free, but you need equipment for pumping: Aside from the pump, you have to buy bottles, cleaning equipment, and most importantly, a hands-free bra so you can work while being milked.
8. It’s okay to supplement.
A very wise and practical friend of mine who is on her third kid has her mom (lucky her) do the middle-of-the-night feedings — with formula. “I need my sleep,” she says.
Most studies evaluate exclusive breastfeeding versus exclusive formula-feeding. Not much has been written about partial breastfeeding or mostly breastfed babies.
Besides, not everyone produces enough milk — especially if you go back to work.
A woman in one of my Facebook mommy groups was looking for advice on how not to use supplement even though her baby only gained an ounce in a month!
If your baby is hungry, please, please, please feed her.
9. It’s okay to stop.
A friend of mine was going crazy for a month trying to breastfeed, facing not only supply issues but emotional ones. If your body isn’t producing enough milk. breastfeeding can actually release cortisol, the stress hormone, rather than oxytocin, the love hormone.
A lactation consultant told her it was more important to form a bond with her baby than anything else, so she stopped. Mother and baby were never happier.
“I encourage the breastfeeding as long as the mother can handle it,” says Dr. Shari Jacobs of Sunshine Pediatrics Associates in Flushing, New York. “If a mother is too stressed, then the baby suffers as well. If stopping breastfeeding relieves this stress, and this is the mom’s choice, then I support it.”
10. It’s okay to keep going.
On the other hand, Dr. Jacobs says, “If a mother wants to continue breastfeeding despite the struggles, then I try to assist with suggestions on how to make it work.”
A bunch of women in my mommy Facebook group were complaining about the judgments they got from nursing their toddlers.
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months, followed by breastfeeding with food until the baby is 12 months old, it also approves “continuation of breastfeeding for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby.” The World Health Organization says you can continue breastfeeding “for up to two years of age or beyond.”
In the end, whether you breastfeed or not, why you make that choice, and for how long is really only one person’s decision: the Mother.
Don’t let society, your friends, or anyone tell you otherwise.
Amy Klein wrote The Fertility Diary column for The New York Times motherlode blog. She writes about health and fertility for publications such as Newsweek, Slate, Dame and others.