Thankfully I've had a number of friends who had kids before me and who were honest about some of the challenges of breastfeeding. It's interesting how something so natural isn't always natural in practice. Even more interesting to me is that I have never heard anyone say that they love breastfeeding. In fact, if anything, most of my friends have not enjoyed breastfeeding. So, I was prepared to potentially face some challenges and sure enough I did. Furthermore, my mother had always told me that when she was pregnant with my brother and I, her doctor told her that formula was now the same as breast milk (this was back in the late 80's and early 90's). When I got pregnant, my only motivation for breastfeeding was free milk. But then I learned how incredible breast milk really is and once I started nursing, I learned so much more. Here are a few of the unexpected things I learned about breastfeeding.
Breast Milk is Liquid Gold
Breast milk is not only full of everything you need to nourish your baby, but it's healing, too. When baby (or you for that matter) has a rash, scratch or other issue rub a little breast milk and it heals! Breast milk is so incredible that as I write this and we are still navigating our way through COVID-19, the CDC advises nursing mothers who contract the virus to continue nursing, but wear a mask. That says a lot about the powers of breast milk. This is only true for babies though. Apparently it can be quite hazardous for adults to drink breast milk.
Olive Oil Also Heals
I don't know why, but I never knew about the healing properties of olive oil until my nipples were cut up and a lactation specialist told me to rub some olive oil on them. Not only did it help me heal, but it helped with the pain I was experiencing while nursing. I couldn't believe it. I had wasted money on two different sets of nipple shields, because the first pair I bought turned out to be the wrong size. The shields were supposed to help me with my pain, but they did not AT ALL. Many women do use them successfully, but THANK GOD FOR OLIVE OIL. Seriously. I now use it any time I have a cut or scrape.
No Teeth No Problem
I mentioned my nipples were cut up, and BOY, who knew that a baby with no teeth could cause SO MUCH pain. With my baby, we had a bad latch and it felt like he was biting down SO HARD with his teeth. But then I remembered he has no teeth! Numerous times I uncontrollably screamed out in pain and even cried.
Milk Comes Out of Multiple Holes
One of the weirdest, craziest things is that milk actually comes out of eight to eleven holes in our nipples. It doesn't come out of all of them at once, but when I've caught it coming out of multiple holes, it looks like a malfunctioning car wash. I've also seen my boobs spray and give my baby a milk shower in the face. Am I terrible for laughing when it happens? My little one's reaction, or lack there of, is funny to me. He doesn't cry and doesn't really have a reaction at all except to maybe try to dodge the sprays a little.
Strong Milk Flow
If and when we ever do hear about women having issues with breastfeeding, one common issue or concern is low milk supply. But some of us, myself included, have strong milk supplies and overactive or forceful letdowns. A letdown is simply the release of milk. It's a reflex that occurs when your breasts are stimulated, usually by your baby's sucking or pumping. This is probably when I see milk forcefully spraying out of my nipples in all directions. It can actually be too much for baby to handle and he either chokes or gulps a lot of air, neither of which is pleasant for him.
A Baby's Cry Can Trigger Let Down
Sometimes hearing your baby or any baby cry can trigger letdown. Even just thinking about your baby can trigger letdown, so it's a pretty powerful reflex.
The Nature of It
I'm still amazed at how baby can find the boob. And if I'm around, I'm sure he can smell me or at least my boobs. Sometimes he will be sleeping in my parents room so soundly, but as soon as I walk in (and I won't even make a sound), he will wake up and realize he's hungry. I also love when baby is "rooting." Rooting is a hunger cue and if I am holding him, he will start turn his head towards my breast. If I'm carrying him higher up near my shoulder, he often even takes a dive towards my breast. Or, he'll start sucking on my shoulder or whatever else he may think is the boob. My favorite is when he starts rooting while his dad or someone else is holding him. I know it's a natural reflex for him, but I love it because I know he's looking for me. And one of the most precious moments I've had is when he he was sleeping on me skin to skin. As he started to wake he started searching for my breast, found it, and latched on without me moving a finger.
What Letdown Feels Like
The feeling of milk coming in is not a comfortable one. It feels like pins and needles. Some women may also feel warmth in their legs, or you may feel menstrual-like cramps in your uterus.
It takes three to four days for your milk to come in and before it does, your breasts produce colostrum, which is full of antibodies. It's clear and is thicker than milk.
How Long Nursing Takes
I didn't take a breastfeeding class, so in the beginning I solely relied on the nurses in the hospital. Each feeding varied, but I remember at times it felt like he nursed for an hour--with breaks in between of course. When I sought help, sometimes the whole routine took 2 hours, but that was because I'd make him do tummy time and change his diaper between latches to re-wake him. I'd also undress him and dress him again (also a way to re-wake him). And then I'd also need to pump. At first it felt like all I was doing was feeding him, because he ate every two hours and our routine basically took all that time. It was pretty exhausting, but now we are more efficient, and I'm very grateful I persisted through the difficult times. Now each feeding generally takes about 10-20 minutes. Many are less. As they get older, babies become more efficient at the breast and some can get their fill in 6 minutes. But every baby is different and has his/her own style of feeding.
Nursing Makes You and Baby Sleepy
When you're nursing, your brain releases oxytocin and that makes you sleepy. At first I thought I was just exhausted and then I learned, while yes I was/am exhausted, there's also another reason for the sleepiness. Your baby also gets sleepy and that's largely due to a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK).
Sometimes Baby Just Wants to Comfort
When you're learning how to nurse, they'll teach you the difference between active sucking and just comforting, and they may tell you to unlatch the baby if you realize they're just comforting. Now that my baby and I are more efficient at nursing, I don't mind letting him comfort. It's a special bond that only I'm able to provide him. Not to mention, mine doesn't like pacifiers!
The Most Special Bond With Baby
The biggest surprise to me was the incredible bond I felt and feel being able to breastfeed my child. Right after I birthed him, and the nurses placed him on my chest he latched so easily and naturally it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Of course that didn't last and for a few weeks his bad latch made me almost forget how bad my labor pains were! Still, I instantly felt a connection I never expected. Having not known the true benefits of breast milk until I was pregnant, I really didn't think much of breastfeeding other than as a way to feed my child prior to ever experiencing it. So, even when I was in so much pain I cried, I cried more worrying that I wouldn't be able to go on nursing my baby, because I didn't want to lose or miss this bond we have. I can't really put into words how I feel about it, but it's just so special. Even when I'm tired at 3am in the morning, it's still so special. I'm grateful I worked with a lactation specialist and no longer have pain while nursing him.
Nursing is initially difficult for many women. I remember being told so many times, even before I was ever pregnant, to not feel bad if I didn't enjoy or want to breastfeed. Again, I never thought that not breastfeeding was a bad thing, but I've come to learn there is a lot of judgment women face if they don't, or if they don't at least pump. Formula is not bad. It is expensive though! Some women may even find that they will be advised to supplement with formula. So each mama will need to do what is best for her and her baby.
To any nursing mamas out there, or those who will one day experience this, remember that a fed baby is best. And if you really want to nurse, I think it's worth it to get help from a lactation specialist or consultant to help you correct the baby's latch or fix whatever the issue may be that is either causing you pain or making it difficult for you to nurse. Also, definitely take a breastfeeding class, especially if there's a good one near you. I wish I did. As soon as I started seeing the lactation specialist, there was an immediate difference. After a couple sessions with her I felt hope and so much more confidence. And now I'm able to take photos like the one above.
To the non-breastfeeding partners out there, know that nursing can be very emotional, especially if there are challenges, so be emotionally supportive and help where you can.
*Random note. If you're planning to get a nursing pillow, get the My Breast Friend Pillow. Most people have a Boppy on their registry and it's great because it's versatile, but I am not a fan of it as a nursing pillow. It feels awkward to me and I have heard the same from other friends. The Breast Friend Pillow though is amazing. It fits well, is comfortable, and a good height for baby. By the time I learned about it, I decided to just use other pillows I have at home. However, if I had to go back and re-do my registry, I'd add that to the registry.
Hope you found this insightful and even helpful! You can read more about my motherhood journey and staying positive through all of life's big and small events on this blog.
Have a jawesome day!