Updated: Aug 18, 2021
You don’t know what you don’t know. Breastfeeding was the biggest hurdle I had to jump when adjusting to life with my new baby. Keep in mind, this is my experience with learning how to breastfeed. Every mom is different and has struggles of her own. This was primarily the first few weeks. I promise, it does get better. Stick to it and it will be so worth it. But don’t do it alone. I couldn’t imagine going through this process without the support from my postpartum doula, Laurie Ann. She taught me everything I know about breastfeeding and helped me every step of the way.
Here are ten things nobody told me about Breastfeeding:
1. How many hands it would take.
I had no idea breastfeeding would require more than my two hands in those first few weeks. I needed one hand to massage my breasts, two hands to help baby latch, two hands to hold baby, two to feed mom snacks and water, one to be on watch for letdown, and one to record the feeding on an app in mom's phone. Right after giving birth, I was too weak to hold my baby up in the position she needed to be in to latch correctly. Sure, a Boppy and other pillows may help, but a brand new baby needs support for her head and neck area, as well as the rest of her body as she’s learning how to latch. You, as the mom, also have to hold your breast properly to get your baby to latch. It is also very important to eat and drink EVERY time you feed to keep up your milk supply. Trust me, you will be hungry and thirsty. Having someone there that can offer to help feed you water and snacks is super helpful.
I also needed someone to make sure that I didn’t lose extra milk. I would use a manual, silicone breast pump called a Haaka to prevent wasting extra milk. It is also super helpful to use an application on your phone to record the feeding. Did you know, you have to switch which side you start on for every feeding? I didn’t! It is SO hard to remember which side you started on last, so using an app definitely helps. It will also record the amount of time the baby feeds on each side. When the baby removes herself from the breast either to burp or take a break, you will need to pause the time. But when the baby comes off, you also need to sit her upright to burp, hold something on your breast to stop the milk from shooting out and pause the time, pretty much simultaneously... it’s not easy to do alone.
2. How it would feel
I was not prepared for how breastfeeding would feel. I had even started pumping a week before I gave birth to help my body produce milk faster as well as help my body know it was time to go into labor. (More on what I did to make my milk come in on day three in a later post). So I knew what the sucking sensation would feel like! Pumping was not comfortable, but I got used to the sensation. But I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for how breastfeeding would actually feel.
I had heard that it was painful, but I thought that the painful part would be how your breasts feel when they are full of milk. Not how painful it could be when your baby was sucking milk out of you. This is my experience, but for me, it HURT. Even when she was latched correctly. During the first few days, whenever my baby would latch I would start screaming and crying because it hurt so much! My baby and I had to learn to work together to make it comfortable for both of us. But it was not easy.
3. How hard it would be to get baby to latch.
About an hour after I gave birth, the nurses helped me feed my baby for the first time. She latched almost entirely by herself. It was such a sweet moment for us. But this is not how it worked after that first feeding.
My baby was hungry and ready to feed every single time, but latching was a challenge for both of us. The thing is, not only was I learning how to do this, so was she! Even if you’ve had babies before, every baby is different and every baby has to learn. Mom has to hold her breast to make sure her baby can latch properly. Then she needs to make sure the baby's lips are suctioned around areola and the nipple needs to be far in the mouth. If the baby does not latch correctly, it will not only be painful for mom, but the baby will also struggle to get milk.
4. Contractions in the first week or two WHILE breastfeeding.
I knew I would have contractions for a while after giving birth. But I didn’t know how frequent it would be, nor did I know it would happen during the most challenging painful time I experienced anyway: feeding my baby. The stimulation caused by your baby sucking on your breasts tells your body to contract. This is why a lot of people will use nipple stimulation at the end of their pregnancy to send their body into labor. This is also why you experience painful contractions while breastfeeding in those first few days or weeks. Your uterus is still contracting down to its normal size. This pain along with recovering from birth is a challenge in itself.
Letdown is a reflex that happens when your milk is ready to flow. This happens throughout the day as you get closer to feeding time, but also during the feeding. When it happens, your breasts feel hot and tingly: a very strange sensation. To prevent milk from shooting out, you may have to press your arm firmly against the opposite breast while feeding. Another option would be to use some sort of breast pump to catch the extra milk. I chose to use a manual silicone breast pump called the Haaka. I highly recommend it as you can save that extra milk that would be otherwise pouring out of your breasts.
If you use a regular automatic breast pump, you would add extra stimulation to that breast, which would cause you to produce even more milk. Be careful with the Haaka. If you already have a lot of milk, just suction it onto your breast one time. If you squeeze the Haaka many times, it will create the same sensation as an automatic breast pump causing your body to produce even more milk.
6. Milk ducts up to your neck.
I never got truly engorged (thanks to Laurie Ann) but I definitely had TONS of milk. I was making 16-24 EXTRA ounces of milk every single day. My freezer looked like a milk factory. It was so important for me to get that milk OUT of my breasts. I had to learn how to balance between emptying my breasts, without causing too much stimulation to make too much milk.
This is where the massaging comes into play. You have to massage your breasts where your milk ducts are to release the milk from them. Your breasts will start to feel full and hard which is uncomfortable, so you have to work on getting that milk out. If your baby doesn’t take enough milk during the feed, you may need to pump afterwards. Many times I was able to solve this by using my silicone manual breast pump during the feedings. I would start by using it on the opposite side while I was feeding on the first side. Then when I would switch the baby over to the next side, I would also switch the Haaka to the side I had just fed on. This will catch the letdown and any extra milk that is causing discomfort.
You have to get enough milk out to make yourself comfortable and prevent infection. But you also don’t want to get ALL the milk out as that will tell your body to produce more milk than your baby will take. Everyone is different. I highly recommend hiring someone, such as a postpartum doula or lactation consultant, to help you decide what’s best for you.
7. Breastfeeding in public, under a cover is difficult!
By now, you have a pretty good picture of what it looks like. But I’ll paint you an even better picture. Every time I would feed my baby (at least in the first week) I would go out to my living room couch. I had to have two pillows behind my back to prop my body up enough to feed. Trust me, sitting up straight after giving birth is not only painful, but also very difficult to do on your own. Your body just feels weak. I had a heating pad behind my lower back to ease the pain (I bruised my tailbone while giving birth) and to keep me warm. I would get SO cold and get the shakes. For this reason, I would have a blanket covering my legs and sometimes have a blanket wrapped around my shoulders.
As for the actual feeding part, I would have my top and bra completely off. I would have a Boppy or a pillow by my stomach to support the baby more during the feeding. I would have the Haaka on one breast, and the baby latched on the other. Even though most times, I started the feeding being very cold, I would get hot flashes during the feeding. Que ripping the blankets off, fanning my face, and drinking ice cold water. See why it takes so many hands...? So to try that discreetly under a cover... not a chance.
And don’t even get me started on how it is to feed the baby in the backseat of the car. Limited space, passing the baby back and forth to burp and prevent milk and spit up from getting all over the place. Oh my!
I had my babe a few days before Thanksgiving, so we had lots of family in town. I felt bad for always having to go into my bedroom and shut the door with at least one other person to help to feed. But Laurie Ann kept reminding me, my two main jobs were to make milk to feed my baby, and take care of my body to recover. When I thought about this, it helped me to step away easier, because I knew I had to take care of myself and my baby.
8. How often you have to feed.
To get my milk to come in, those first few days, I was feeding my baby every two hours around the clock. But it was every two hours from the start of the first feeding to the start of the next. Here is an example of what the schedule would look like:
I would start feeding at 2:00. The feeding itself would last anywhere from 30-45 minutes in those first few days as I was learning. This included getting the baby to latch multiple times, burping the baby, switching sides, collecting the extra milk, and so on. Then when the feeding is complete, the baby will need a diaper change and be cleaned up from any spit up or milk (trust me this can get messy). So baby may need an outfit change, as well as mom. Mom will need to eat something. Baby will need to be rocked to sleep. Mom will want to rest, and then by that time, it’s already 4:00 and time to feed again.
Even when you start spacing out the feelings a little more and feel well enough to go out, it’s hard to be out for very long. As you’ve already read, it is very challenging to feed the baby in public. Even if you have milk stored for bottles, you will still need to pump at each feeding time to empty your breasts and keep up your milk supply.
9. You HAVE to eat during or after every feeding.
I’m not normally a big eater AT ALL, but I couldn’t get enough food when I was breastfeeding. Especially in those first few weeks. Making milk is a lot of work. Your body burns tons of calories in doing so. I remember every time I fed my baby, feeling drained like the little energy I did have was being sucked out of me. Finding time to rest is essential.
Your body will do what it needs to do to produce milk. If you don’t fuel your body, you will start to feel bad, because your body is still going to need to produce milk. Always have snacks around when you feed.
10. I could NOT have done it alone.
At this point you can probably tell why I couldn't have done it alone. It was not only a difficult experience physically, but also emotionally. I am not normally a super emotional person, but I couldn’t help but breakdown and cry sometimes. It is not easy. It takes a long time to learn and figure things out. It takes time to learn how to breastfeed your baby by yourself. Remember all the hands and things you have to do and hold? It takes practice to do it alone. But you will get there! Remember that it's normal to struggle. Breathe and take your time. Be kind to yourself.
Breastfeeding is not a one size fits all process so to speak. Every mom has to find their own technique and routine that works best for her and her baby. This isn’t something you can learn from a manual, a book, or even YouTube videos. It’s a hands on, personalized experience and everyone needs support. Do yourself a favor, and hire a professional to walk alongside you throughout this journey.
I don’t say any of this to scare you away from breastfeeding, but to better prepare you, as I was not prepared at all. Nothing can truly prepare you for the experience. But I hope this post being as raw and real as it is, gives you some sort of idea of how this experience may look. I will say, it gets so much better. Even after all this, I can honestly say, it is so worth the challenges. Don’t give up momma. You can do it. Hang in there and trust the process. Take things one step at a time. Take each new challenge as it comes. As Laurie Ann always says, you are the best mommy for your baby.