When I was pregnant I was asked many times by midwives and others whether I planned to breastfeed. I’m a big reader, so I was well aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding, but had also heard from some friends that they’d not been able to breastfeed for one reason or another, so my feelings were fairly laid back; if I could breastfeed, I intended to, but I wasn’t going to put unnecessary pressure on myself.
I felt I was fairly prepared for the realities of breastfeeding – like many people in the UK I’d completed the NCT course in preparation and thought I knew all I needed in terms of the technicalities, positions, and who to contact if I was having trouble. And yet there are so many things that came as a surprise when I actually came to doing it.
Breastfeeding might be natural, but that doesn’t mean your baby knows how to do it
What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that my baby might be learning to feed at the same time I was. I naively thought that my baby would exit the womb and just ‘know’ what to do – that I could just hold him while he did his thing. Turned out, that was not the case at all – Max seemed pretty clueless about what to do, or about the need to feed. We didn’t manage to get a first feed before we were moved from the labour ward to the post-natal ward (we were moved so quickly I wasn’t even allowed a shower!), and I found it impossible to get him latched on without the help of the midwives who, as far as I could see, would literally just grab his head and force it onto my breast the moment his mouth was even slightly open. It took well over a month before we really started to feel comfortable with this, with the help of the breastfeeding counsellors at The Baby Cafe who I highly recommend dropping in on if you’re having any problems.
Breastfeeding makes you tired, hungry and thirsty – eat the cake and don’t feel guilty!
I was also surprised at how tired breastfeeding makes you feel, and how hungry and thirsty! I used to make sure that whenever I sat down to feed Max I had a big glass of water to hand, and a biscuit or two as well.
Breastfeeding hurts – it doesn’t always mean you’re doing it wrong
The other thing that surprised me was that breastfeeding hurts. In our antenatal classes, and echoed by lots of midwives I spoke to, I’d been told that if it hurts it means that there’s something wrong with the latch, but in my experience, particularly at the start, it just does hurt. Feeling unconfident in whether or not we had achieved a good latch, I tried nipple shields, but I found that even with those, it still hurt. The one thing that helped was Lansinoh – lanolin ointment that you can put on after feeding which moisturises, but most importantly, soothes. It’s magic stuff and I credit it with enabling me to breastfeed – without it I would have given up in the first few weeks.
Expressing is both an amazing and evil invention
There’s no doubt about it – breastfeeding ties you to your baby in a way that bottle feeding doesn’t. Nobody except you can feed your child. And while that certainly helps with bonding, it doesn’t make it easy for you as a mum to catch a break – night feeds are down to you, and leaving your baby for more than 2 hours at a time is very difficult. And that’s why expressing can be a lifesaver.
But before having Max, I assumed that expressing would be fairly straightforward – no-one ever voiced to me that they had difficulties with this so I blindly assumed that I would be able to express without much of an issue. Turns out, it’s not so easy!
And from talking to other mums, that seems to be the case for most people. I would pump for ages and hardly get anything at all, and after a while I hated the whirr of the pump with an absolute passion. And yet, it was worth it to allow me a break for one night feed every now again (thanks to my lovely husband!).
Public feeding isn’t the big deal you think
I’ll admit that I found the thought of feeding in public a daunting prospect. You read so many stories in the news about mothers who have had negative comments directed at them that I felt quite hesitant about this. I think a big part of this negative attitude is the lack of understanding that our society has about breastfeeding – I know before I was pregnant I had no idea just how often a breastfed baby needs to feed or how lots of babies just won’t tolerate being fed under a cover.
I found specially designed breastfeeding clothing fabulous, as Max would point blank refuse to be fed under a blanket or breastfeeding cover. These clothes allowed for discrete feeding and I felt pretty comfortable feeding him in public with this setup. In fact, the only time anyone ever said anything to me was when one lady passing by said ‘Well done you!’. After about 4 months, once we’d sorted our latch issues and I’d gained a bit of confidence, breastfeeding began to seem like the far easier choice over bottles – nothing to carry around with you, no waiting for bottles to be made, no need to sterilise…
Know when you’re due a growth spurt
Growth spurts are massively exhausting, for both mum and baby. Just when you think you’ve got into the swing of things with something resembling a routine, a growth spurt comes along to throw everything out again. A growth spurt is your baby’s way of increasing your milk supply, which means they need to feed pretty much constantly in order to tell your body to make more milk. So my best advice is just to accept it – get into a TV series and binge watch for a few days. You can read about signs of a growth spurt and when to expect them here.
Teeth doesn’t necessarily mean the end
Although I was keen to breastfeed, I always had in mind that I would stop when Max got teeth. Although many people told me that a baby cannot feed with their teeth exposed and that it wasn’t an issue, I’d also read that most mothers get bitten at one point or another and it just wasn’t something I was up for. Luckily this wasn’t the case for us, and despite my reservations, we carried on well past the stage when the first few teeth started coming through.
Don’t get too hung up on weight gain
Max has always been a small baby – although he was born 7lb6, (at the 50% percentile) he lost just over 10% of his birth weight in the first week, so we revisited the hospital to check him over. He’s tracked along the 9th percentile ever since, even after weaning when it became clear that he actually had a huge appetite and would happily eat all day. But hindsight is a marvellous thing, and at the time his low weight gave me endless concern about whether or not I was doing the right thing by continuing to breastfeed, and I wrote about this in detail here. I wish that I’d trusted in my body and not given myself such unnecessary guilt trips about our feeding.
In the end we managed to carry on breastfeeding until Max was just under 12 months – something I’m really proud of given our difficult start.