Prior to having a baby I was especially aware about the benefits of breastfeeding for both a mother’s and child’s health. I have to admit that I often wondered why it was that so many women choose not to breastfeed and why so many gave up so quickly. However, after my own first-hand experience at mastering breastfeeding, I am no longer so quick to judge.
It’s very easy to try to promote breastfeeding by reeling off the numerous health benefits to a brand new mum; however I truly believe that often the TRUTH about breastfeeding, and the challenge that it often entails is not told – possibly in fear of mothers not attempting it in the first place.
Breastfeeding is hard, really hard. Yet no health care professional (HCP) I met before or after the birth of my baby actually emphasised this enough for me. In fact after the birth I was constantly told “if it hurts you’re not doing it right”. For me this was incredibly unhelpful and I felt that many women deserve to know the truth about breastfeeding – the good and the bad.
Breast is certainly best
Before I start, I want to make it clear that I am still very much an advocate for breastfeeding. Aside from the multiple health benefits obtained from breastfeeding, it’s easy, convenient, cheap, and is a wonderful experience for mother and baby to share. However a mother’s initial experience of breastfeeding may be very different to this and it’s important to help mothers to prepare.
The truth about breastfeeding
This blog aims to set out the reality of breastfeeding – mainly in those first complicated and emotional weeks after having a baby. Of course, this is all subjective and based on my own experiences, as well as those of friends and acquaintances, but hopefully it may help others who are going through these first tough weeks…
- Just because it’s natural, it doesn’t make it easy
As with childbirth, “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean plain sailing. Getting baby to latch can sometimes be a real effort. Breastfeeding is a learning experience for both you and baby – not necessarily something that is second nature to either of you. You may spend hours fighting with a hungry baby trying to actually get him/her to latch. I was also always told that a baby will “find their food source themselves” – but even now, I have to help my baby to latch properly each time I feed.
- It hurts. Sometimes A LOT
For me this is one of the biggest troubles I came across in the post baby fuzz. So many HCPs told me it wouldn’t hurt if I was doing it right. I had my latch checked multiple times in the hospital and then again at every visit at home, and was always told it looked right. However, it still hurt. Initially I found the pain was just in the initial latch, but after a few days of breast feeding the pain came from two very sore and raw nipples. For me the raw nipple pain lasted until around 5 weeks and was something that was very hard to cope with. Additionally, although I luckily avoided it, cracked and bleeding nipples are fairly common in the first weeks of feeding, yet powering through seems to be the only option.
- Nipple to nose doesn’t always work
I’ve never really been able to get my baby to latch using this approach. He often doesn’t open his mouth wide enough and it can take multiple attempts to get it right, even now. After he’s latched well, he will sometimes pull off again, meaning that you have to start the whole process again. When you’re tired, hot and emotional this can also be very hard to cope with.
- It’s not always a magical bonding experience
Although for me I now am able to enjoy breastfeeding for what it is and enjoy the time alone with my baby, initially I didn’t find it such a delightful bonding experience. In fact, on a few occasions I was in tears whilst feeding – due to the pain, struggles with latching and the emotional strain of it all – somehow that didn’t feel so much like a bonding experience.
- It can be relentless
For the first few weeks of breastfeeding it often feels and sometimes is relentless. I sometimes had visions of my baby as a mini vampire who only lusted after my milk…. For a few weeks he also “cluster fed” (where a baby will feed continuously for a long period of time) during the evenings for what seemed like hours on end. This was one of the biggest challenges for me and for my already very sore nipples. At night I would be Googling everything and anything about cluster feeding, including how long it would continue and any tips to help me reduce the frequency. Of course it naturally reduced and most people establish a less frequent routine after around 5-6 weeks (I now feed every 2-3 hours). However during some evenings early on, it was often hard to see if it constant feeding would ever end!
- It’s all on you
This is another part of the breastfeeding process that’s really hard for breastfeeding mums – it’s all down to you, and the survival of your baby depends pretty much solely on you providing your baby with nutrition – on demand! That’s a lot of responsibility and it also means that you can’t just pop out for the day or leave baby with a family member so easily as those who are formula feeding. For people who are usually very busy with their work, family and social lives, this can be a massive shock to the system initially.
- Advice is very mixed
I was told by some HCPs that breastfed babies don’t need winding, which turned out to not be the case. I was also told that breastfeeding is an effective contraceptive, only to be told a few days later that this really wasn’t necessarily the case either. I was told that expressing too early wasn’t a good idea and then recommended to try it fairly early on by another HCP. It was very hard to keep up and I was lucky that I already have a lot of knowledge in this area to allow me to make my own informed decisions. However, when you’re a new mum with no idea what you’re doing HCP advice is gospel, and so it’s very hard when you’re given mixed answers to your queries.
- Expressing is a faff!
Although for me some expressing was essential to allow me to sleep in the first weeks, it is actually a fairly complex and awkward thing to do. Additionally advice on sterilising bottles and pumps is a bit of a minefield (look out for a blog on this soon) and in my experience advice wasn’t always clear cut.
- It takes (in my experience and for many others I’ve spoken to) around 5-6 weeks to get it right. Unfortunately this wasn’t ever explained to me. I was told it shouldn’t hurt and that it might take a couple of weeks to get used to feeding. It took much longer and I found myself counting down the weeks until I would feel vaguely human and confident at feeding my own baby. Even after 5-6 weeks it’s unlikely to be perfect – I still have times where I struggle with his latch and times when he’s not happy taking my milk. It is however, so much easier after those initial 5 or 6 weeks.
BUT remember that BREAST is certainly best!
I’ve written this post about breastfeeding, not to scare new mothers off, but in fact to do the absolute opposite. Not being told the truth or being fully informed is likely to have the opposite effect rather than helping mothers to feed their babies themselves.
In fact we can see this in the statistics around breastfeeding – three quarters of new mums breastfeed, but this figure drops to less than half within the first two months of a baby’s life.
In my experience, being told the truth before starting (e.g. it’s likely to hurt, your nipples will be sore for weeks, baby may feed for hours on end initially) would have set me up to be more confident that I was doing it right. Being told “it won’t hurt” leaves mothers feeling that they are doing it wrong and, eventually giving up all together. Even with my background and determination to feed I came close, on a few occasions to giving up myself. Having the knowledge that it will get easier, but that this will take some time, would have helped me no end.
Now I am feeding with confidence, and possess a clear, fairly well rested head. It’s so much easier and I really do get pleasure out of knowing that I am helping my baby to grow and develop all by myself. Additionally, aside from the health benefits it’s so convenient to do, and you know that baby can take what they need when they need it.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful experience, but it takes a while to realise it. With some willpower and determination anyone can get there. Additionally do get support. I did find breastfeeding support groups and some of the health visitor clinics useful for giving me the confidence that what I was doing was OK and that other parents were going through the same thing that I was, so make sure you’re not afraid to ask for help.