Before I begin, let me preface this by saying I know not everyone wants to breastfeed and those that want to but can't, stop for a whole host of different reasons (and that can be a very emotional time). This blog is in no way meant to make anyone feel bad. I simply decided to write down some of the things that I've learned so far, in the hope that it might help someone else on their breastfeeding journey.
When I had my baby 12 weeks ago, I knew breastfeeding would be hard, but I had no idea just how hard! For something that looks like it should be so easy and instinctual (you just pop them on the boob right?) it is actually pretty complicated! In the first few weeks there were times that I hated it so much (and was in so much pain) I really wanted to quit, but with a lot of advice and encouragement I persevered and now here we are 12 weeks later, still tweaking, but still going!
Breastfeeding is HARD in the beginning
I'll say it again, in the beginning, breastfeeding is really bloody hard! The experts might disagree with me here but in my opinion this whole “if the latch is right it doesn’t hurt” thing is rubbish! Maybe later on, when the initial shock subsides, that is the case, but in those first few weeks there will be pain. Now my nipples have adjusted, I know if she's gone on incorrectly, but I firmly believe, having spoken to many women, that it's painful for the vast majority when you first get going.
There is famously a day of cluster feeding in the first 2-3 days and your newborn can be suckling on your nips for hours at a time (one of my friends reported 14 hours non-stop!). Your nipples have never received that kind of abuse before! And they can end up cracked, sore and even bleeding. So it’s pretty obvious they are going to need some time to adapt. I don’t want to put anyone off, because breastfeeding is magical (more on this later!), but I think having realistic expectations will mean that when it comes to it, you’ll know it’s normal to feel pain in the beginning and more importantly, that it gets better!
You can actually start breastfeeding before your baby is born! Sounds crazy but you can hand express colostrum, also known as liquid gold (the first form of milk you produce that is packed full of nutrients), from when you are full term at 37 weeks.
There are many benefits of doing this, firstly you get to learn a bit about your boobs. I knew which was my slacker boob (everyone has a slacker!) before I started breastfeeding, so wasn't surprised when my baby favoured the left and I had to work a bit harder to get her to feed from the right. I also learnt how to hand express which can be a useful skill in the beginning (sometimes if you express a little milk it helps to get your newborn to latch and hand expressing can help relieve some pressure when your milk comes in). Having some frozen colostrum can also be useful if you aren't able to feed your baby when they are born (if for example, you or they need some extra care and you can't be together), you can make sure someone gives them the colostrum you've harvested.
There's lots of good info out there about how but my top tips are to do it in the bath or after a shower. Massage your boobs first and then relax. Don't expect to get much (it was literally drop by drop for me into a tiny 1ml syringe, one per day) or any at all, but if you can it can be very useful to have. Let me know if you want any more info on this, I have a few useful links I can share.
The all important latch
The latch is the most important thing to master. It looks like you just put your baby’s head near to your boob, they find your nipple and away you go but in reality, breastfeeding is actually quite technical and getting the latch right from the beginning will save you a lot of pain. Just like you, your baby has a hard palate at the front of their mouth and then it’s softer at the back. The aim is to get your actual nipple to the back of the mouth and so a fair bit of boob needs to get in there too!
There are some tricks to this. Making sure your baby is close to your body, can move their head back and open their mouth really wide. You can also squeeze your boob like a burger so it goes in deeper (this is especially helpful when your milk comes in and your boobs are rock solid) and there’s also a technique called “the flipple”. There are excellent videos of all these things online so look them up and save the links before you have your baby!
There are multiple different positions you can use (cradle hold, cross cradle, sitting up AKA Koala, under the arm AKA rugby ball, laid back/biological nursing, lying down and I’m sure there are others. Again, pictures and videos of all these things can be found online so make sure you learn about them before you start feeding.
The two types of milk
There are two types of milk in your boobs! The fore milk and hind milk. The fore milk comes first and is thin and plentiful, the hind milk is thicker, fatty milk that sticks to the walls of the ducts and slowly increases in what's coming out as you feed. You need your baby to drink all the fore milk to get to the hind milk (which is not only good for them but keeps them fuller for longer). So it’s important to “drain” one boob before offering the next.
Your milk changes
Your breast milk adapts to your babies needs and the more you kiss your baby and take in their little microbiome, the more tailored it will be! Like I said...magic!
Let downs feel really weird
I had heard about "the let down" (once your baby had started sucking on your nipple it causes your boob to release milk), I'd heard my sister say "Oh I just got a let down" in a way that made me think it was barely noticeable and kind of pleasant, but for me, it's not and was especially uncomfortable in the beginning. It feels like an intense tingling, like your boobs are fizzing and stinging at the same time. Some people never feel it, for others it's very light but for me it wasn't a nice sensation and although I'm used to it now, sometimes it still really hurts, but only for a few seconds.
You and your baby will probably have a favourite side to feed from. For you it will probably depend on whether you are right or left handed, for your baby all manor of things can affect their preference such as your nipple shape, letdown and milk flow on that side and if they have a side they prefer to move their head to (sometimes a product of how they came out of you - Cranial Sacral Massage for babies can be really useful for alleviating this).
There is lots and lots of help out there!
If I had tried to cope on my own there is absolutely no way I would have made it through. Instead I sought help everywhere! I spoke to friends and family, joined NCT Zoom calls, had video chats with a friend who's a La Leche League Leader and a FaceTime with a lactation consultant from the local hospital. And in doing so I realised how much there was to know and how much help there is out there if you ask for it. Although some help face to face would have been useful, in the times of COVID all these professionals have found new ways to work. The NCT Zoom for example is a group chat that you can drop in to but if you want to ask a question you don't feel comfortable sharing in a group or you would like someone to watch you feed then they offered private 121 chats a well (big up NCT Bucks).
My top tips...
- Don’t assume it’s going to be easy!
- Prepare and do your research
- Find out where your local breastfeeding clinics are (lots of these are virtual at the moment)
- Scour the La Leche League website and find your local group/leader
- Buy a good nipple cream (most people use Lanisoh but because it's not vegan I used Nessa's Nipple SOS, which I highly recommend) and some nipple shields.
- Buy or borrow a pump. I was leant a Medela Swing, which lots of people recommend, and later bought a Haakaa silicone pump which catches your letdown. I used the electric pump in the beginning, it helped take some of the pressure off when my milk came in but never got very much. I use my Haakaa pump every day (but not every feed) to collect the letdown from the boob I'm not feeding from with the aim to have a stash in the freezer for emergencies.
- These compresses, that you can put in the freezer, really helped me when my milk came in.
It all got a lot easier for me at the 6 weeks mark, that was a real turning point and now apart from the odd day when she feeds a lot and I notice it, I can safely say that I love breastfeeding!
A little more magic...
If you fancy geeking out a little bit, check out this infographic that shows all the things that human breastmilk contains. It's pretty incredible!
And finally, did you know...
- The World Health Organisation recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their life and breastfeeding should continue for up to 2 years or beyond.
- Breastfeeding reduces your baby's risk of:
Breastfeeding lowers your risk of:
So I hope that someone out there finds some of this useful! It's taken me weeks to find snippets of time to write and as I finish this last bit I am typing one handed whilst feeding!
I'd love to hear from you if you liked the blog or have any questions and please share it with anyone who might find it useful :)
Thanks for reading!