Like many expectant mothers, I was excited about the idea of breastfeeding my baby. My mom had talked wistfully about how some of her favorite memories were breastfeeding us late at night, and I envisioned a similar bonding experience for me and my son. It also seemed like the most easy, healthy and natural way to feed him.
But what I didn’t anticipate was how it would end up being one of the most difficult and emotionally draining experiences I’ve ever gone through.
Call it overconfidence or optimism, but I didn’t even think about taking one of the breastfeeding classes offered at my hospital before I gave birth. In retrospect, that was a big mistake. I had very little understanding of the mechanics of breastfeeding — not just latching, but how milk supply worked; and when I had to supplement with formula due to a dehydration scare and delay in my milk coming in, I didn’t realize that nipple confusion was a real thing that you had to deal with once baby got a taste of the bottle.
Looking back, there are some things I really wish I’d known, and I share these now with the hope that they’ll help a new mama.
1. It will feel like all your newborn does, besides sleep, is eat.
As a result, it will feel like all you are doing is breastfeeding, or as I liked to call it, “milk stuff.” This is not an exaggeration and it is nothing I was even remotely prepared for. But all new moms should be prepared for a non-stop cycle of baby feeding, at least for the first few weeks. Experts say it is pretty normal for your newborn to want to nurse all the time — as long as they are having enough wet diapers, seem content when not eating, and are gaining weight. Invest in a good breastfeeding pillow and a comfortable place to sit and nurse. I ditched the recliner in the nursery and chose to camp out in our living room so I could binge-watch shows on Netflix while my son ate, slept, repeat.
2. Your milk is driven by supply and demand.
Essentially, every time your baby nurses, he/she is telling your body they need that milk. And that’s why you really can’t nurse too much. My pediatrician urged me to nurse less frequently and let my breasts “fill back up.” She meant well, but this advice directly counters what experts know about breastfeeding. According to Kelly Bonyata, BS, IBCLC, “For the most part, milk production is a ‘use it or lose it’ process. The more often and effectively your baby nurses, the more milk you will make.”
3. Your baby may not be an efficient eater.
Just like some mothers struggle with breastfeeding, some babies struggle too, for varying reasons. My son had tongue and lip ties that affected his ability to breastfeed effectively. Who even knew that was a thing?! He would eat for over 45 minutes, fall asleep, and wake back up hungry and crying. My lactation consultant told me that because of the ties, his tongue didn’t work properly and he had to work extra hard to get milk out — and would exhaust himself and fall asleep before he could get enough to feel full. While many pediatricians do not look for tongue or lip ties, research shows that “surgical release of tongue-tie/lip-tie results in significant improvement in breastfeeding outcomes.”
4. You may develop a weight obsession.
And not about your number on the scale — rather, your baby’s. It’s expected that all babies lose some of their birth weight; 7-10% is the range. When we took my son in for a checkup on his third day of life, he’d lost 10% of his birth weight and was at risk of dehydration. It was terrifying. Our pediatrician asked us to immediately begin supplementing with formula, which we did for the following few days until my milk fully came in. But after gaining back his birth weight the first two weeks, his weight gain slowed to well below the “normal” range of 5-7 ounces a week.
It is an incredibly crushing feeling to know that your baby is relying on you for nourishment, and yet he’s not getting enough from you to grow. Because I was so terrified of him not gaining weight, I continued to supplement every feeding with pumped milk. And eventually, it seemed easier to just feed him by bottle, so I could feel reassured that I knew exactly how much milk he was getting. Aside from one early morning breastfeeding session a day, I became an “exclusive pumper.”
5. Bottle feeding is a bonding experience, too.
You know what creates that feeling of bonding? Having your baby curled up in your arms, falling asleep full and happy. You know what was not a bonding experience? Trying to stuff my breast in my baby’s mouth while he screamed and cried in frustration because he wanted to drink from a bottle. So, bottle feeding ended up being what worked best for us. I exclusively pumped and fed breastmilk as long as I could, but eventually the stress and exhaustion of trying to make enough for all his feedings took its toll. When I went back to work, my supply dipped more and I found myself pumping barely enough for two bottles. Every day, I grappled with the idea of throwing in the towel. Eventually, my mom sagely told me that maybe my body was telling my mind what it couldn’t decide — it was time to ease up on myself. So, I cut down to only a couple pumps per day, supplementing the rest with formula. No matter how much breastmilk or formula he’s getting, there’s no better feeling than knowing he is full and happy.
Now that my baby is nine-months-old, I look back on those early days with a mixture of wistfulness and sadness. I still feel envious of the moms who have an easy time with breastfeeding. I wonder had I been more prepared, if we might have ultimately had a more successful time. But in so many ways, I have had it so easy with my son. He’s a happy, healthy baby who loves sleep and makes us laugh.
The final truth I wish I’d known is that every mom out there is facing some kind of challenge, whether it’s trouble with breastfeeding or something far more serious. In this social media obsessed world where photos, videos and status updates shared are a highlight reel of the best moments, it’s easy to assume that some moms’ days are picture perfect; and that’s just not the truth. So to every mama going through a tough time right now, please know that you are not alone.