How can something so natural be so fraught with guilt, misunderstanding and discomfort? I was so worried about breastfeeding before I gave birth. I was convinced I would struggle with it, especially when I sat round the table in a cafe with my hypnobirthing mummy friends and realised they'd all attended free breastfeeding 'training' sessions at the local hospital and I wasn't aware such a thing even existed. My nipples have always been so sensitive I couldn't bare to touch them, what chance did I have to nurse my infant child?
But as soon as I was out of the birthing pool and onto a bed with my baby boy, only minutes old, lying snuggled in my arms, the midwife popped my nipple in his searching mouth without any trouble and he began to suckle straight away. The initial sensation was odd - like a prickly pain - but it wasn't unbearable. And in my post-birth high I was just relieved that he was getting nourishment from me without too much hassle. Once home, adrenaline fuelled and unable to sleep, I scooped my baby boy into my arms and fed him from my breast in the weak morning light of the nursery. I felt so proud. Why had I worried? This was easy, painless and I felt so happy that the whole experience - the pregnancy, birth and now breastfeeding had come so naturally to me. I felt like an Earth Mother and all powerful.
Roll on two days later. Sleep deprived, my nipples were cracked, bleeding and I had to hold my breath and count to 10 as Harrison latched onto me. My breasts were swollen and so heavy it felt like I was pregnant all over again. The pain I experienced when my milk let down was torturous. But he was getting milk from me, there was never any question of switching to formula, I just hoped and prayed that things would get easier. And luckily they did.
Two months on, I wanted to share the ten most important things I've learned about breastfeeding, as one who missed out on all the pre-birth training and had to learn 'on the job' (thanks google!). I'm still breastfeeding, it's still relatively easy (though we have our moments). I'm sure there will be more learning to come, but for now, this is what I now know.
1. If your baby is healthy, happy and putting on weight, you are doing something right.
The first few weeks were a whirlwind of midwives visiting, yanking my boobs out and telling me I needed to try this position, I needed to feed for this long, I needed to hold him like this, not like that blah blah blah. But Harrison was happy, was putting on a good amount of weight and I had already found the positions I was comfortable to feed him in. I trusted my maternal instincts (and years of watching women feed their babies on TV and in films) to know roughly what should be done, and hey, I was right. The midwives visits felt like a huge waste of time to me.
2. Your baby continues to take in your antibodies for as long as you breastfeed.
I always thought as long as you breastfed for the first two weeks, you could give up afterwards as the baby will have got all the important nutrients in those early days. Not so. Your baby will continue to take in your antibodies for as long as you breastfeed, making them that much more resilient to fighting infections.
3. Breastmilk is a living thing.
Apparently. I guess it's all those antibodies and 'good bacteria'. Like a pot of Yakult.
4. The first few weeks are the worst.
But you will survive. It might feel like your nipple is being injected with a thousand tiny pin pricks to begin with, but your nipples will toughen up so to speak and the pain when baby latches does phase out gradually. Once you've got past 4 weeks, you start feeling like a pro and then it gets much easier. Stick with it if you can. Afterall, if you've survived the pain of delivering your child naturally, what's a little nipple tweaking pain in comparison?
5. Guilt is a natural part of being a mum. And even if you are breastfeeding you will encounter guilt.
I love being a mum, it's the greatest job in the world. But I never, ever, EVER thought I'd feel so guilty about everything. I am still exclusively breastfeeding, but some days, for whatever reason, it's hard work and my mind starts thinking about those two 'emergency' cartons of Aptamil in the kitchen cupboard...But the idea of switching to formula now, after we've been doing so well, makes me feel so guilty. Lots of people formula feed their babies, who are healthy, happy and fine. Even thinking about introducing a little bit of formula into his diet makes me feel bad. Why? Because of the insane amount of pressure midwives and health visitors put on new mums to breastfeed. Breast is best and all that. But honestly whatever you decide to do will be the right decision because only you and your baby can know what is best for you both. And a happy mum will most often make a happy child. So yeah, let the guilt wash over you. Because whatever you do (or don't do), that niggling feeling in the back of your mind will be there.
6. An over supply is an annoying problem, but a good problem, to have.
My left boob regularly squirts milk in poor Harrison's face. At first it was weird. Then it was funny. Then it was annoying because he kept coming off the latch. Then it was worrying because I did some research and over supply came up on breastfeeding websites as a 'problem' and I panicked thinking there was something wrong with me. Then it was distressing because he was getting upset that he couldn't feed properly out of that boob. Eventually, I realised it was because I was pumping too much out of that boob, therefore telling my body I needed more milk from it and increasing my supply. Once I figured that out, I stopped pumping 5oz + out of just one boob and things have improved. But hey, at least I'm making enough milk (which is always a good thing I think).
7. Breastfeeding in public is awkward. But doable.
Ah, the minefield of feeding in public. This issue divides the world and everyone seems to have a strong opinion on it. Breastfeeding is one of the most natural things in the world, but it's unfortunately not the most natural thing in the world to pop a boob out in a public place. Like anything, once you've done it once, it gets easier. Juggling a muslin and a wriggly, hungry baby in a busy cafe whilst trying to preserve your dignity and discreetly insert your massive nipple in your child's face is always going to be tricky. If you get some looks from passers-by, then ignore them. You need to feed your baby and the issue is theirs, not yours. I always try to be discreet, and believe me, I don't relish the opportunity of feeding him from my boob whilst out and about, but sometimes needs must. I've done it a few times now and it has got easier. There are lots of breastfeeding friendly restaurants, cafés and shops if you're out and about. The Feed Finder app is helpful. And of course, if you're prepared you can always pump a bottle or two in advance. And anyone that's pumped knows that every drop of milk is precious. J nearly spilt a freshly pumped bottle once! A good 40 minutes worth of milk. I would have been furious!
So breastfeeding out and about - try it (or not). Once again, the decision should be about what's best for you and your baby.
8. Close bond? It's ok to feel bored.
I always read about the amazing bond mothers felt when they nursed their children. Mostly, I feel boredom. I like him to get latched, fed and burped as quickly as possible. I enjoy cuddling him, and I do feel good to know that every ounce he gains is down to my body's amazing ability to produce milk. But I don't feel this 'glow' of motherhood that I thought came with breastfeeding. Well, not after the first few times anyway. Sometimes, halfway through a feed, he'll put his little hand on my boob and gaze adoringly up into my eyes and give a little look of wonder. And in those moments, I'm pretty blown away. I'm close to my son, we have a special bond. But I'm not sure that's because I breastfeed him. I think it's more because he grew inside me for 9 months and I worked bloody hard at pushing him out of me!
9. It's impossible to know how much he's getting.
Should be obvious but it's annoying that there is no way of knowing how much milk a breastfed baby is actually getting. Especially when they sick up a whole load of it straight after a feed, then demand more immediately. Of course, you could pump it all and work it out that way. But pumping is even more boring than breastfeeding, especially if you have a noisy machine like me! If only boobs came with measurements on the side!
10. Breastfeeding on demand is exhausting, and 'on demand' usually means 'when it's least convenient'.
Most days I feel tired and drained. On demand means whenever my baby wants it, he is offered a feed. This is what the NHS advise, but of course, what is recommended and what is easy are rarely the same. Most of the time it's fine, but some days, Harrison feeds so much my nipples become permanently erect and sore. Thank god for Lansinoh nipple cream! Expensive but a must-have. And until he's a little older and we work out a routine that is suitable for us, the chances are that he will want feeding as soon as I've sat down to dinner. Or need to answer the door / phone / call of nature.
So whilst this post may sound rather whingy, I want the ultimate message to be that whatever you're doing to feed your baby, it's going to be tough. There will be good days and bad. The learning curve is steep, but the joy of having a newborn baby to love and nurture makes every last drop of milk worth it. And I wouldn't change my baby, or how he feeds for anything.