I’m not a lactation consultant -- all my "training" in breastfeeding is from trial and (mostly) error! I wanted desperately to breastfeed my first, but encountered many obstacles and ended up quitting and pumping exclusively after five weeks. (I lost some confidence, and parts of my nipples, in the process!)
With my second, horrifyingly, it was like Groundhog Day -- all of the same problems came up. But with the help of an amazing Lactation Consultant, Erika Charpentier, IBCLC, who encouraged me to follow my own intuition and not worry about "following the rules," we were able to figure it out. We're still going strong two and a half years later!
I've learned so many lessons along the way, and I share them here in hopes that I can help other moms who are struggling -- even if it's just to tell you that you are not alone in your suffering! And as always, feel free to reach out at hello at patriciashepard.com (or via DM @psshepard) if you want to talk! Hang in there, Mama!
1. Make a Postpartum Plan
Creating a healthy, supportive postpartum environment is, I think, the single most important factor for breastfeeding success. It is also key to your mental and physical health, and the smoothness of your transition into motherhood.
Think positive thoughts about breastfeeding. Visualize it. If you pray, pray about it. Even if you don’t pray, pray about it!
Set a deadline in your head of how long you’ll hope to stick it out if things get really hard — six weeks is ideal, because most breastfeeding pairs figure it out by about then.
Determine who your support network is, and prepare to ask for help! If friends offer help, ask one of them to set up a meal train. (This will facilitate the things you need to be focusing on right now — sitting around nursing, resting, and eating well.) I love Mealtrain.com — it is free and simple to use. There are plenty of articles out there on best practices for meal trains for new babies — here is a good one. The main point is get in and out of there, as quickly as possible, and don’t touch the baby -- this is your time to bond!
For the first forty days at least — a.k.a., “la cuarentena” — try to plan to do as little as possible. Your goal should be to nurse, nurse, nurse — to sit on the couch, watch TV, eat & drink well, sleep when possible, and get to know your baby. Many traditional cultures all over the world understood the importance of this postpartum recovery period, and still practice it to this day.
As my mom succinctly put it, “Take off your watch.”
I know this is hard, because our society tells new moms that we should be up and about like normal, looking hot, entertaining guests, running marathons and board meetings, etc., weeks or even days after giving birth to another human — which makes no sense. Stand your ground and make postpartum as high a priority as you can!
2. Educate Yourself, But Don't Overthink It
Breastfeeding is not an intellectual endeavor. Actually, it is the opposite, and with my first baby, overthinking totally got in my way.
It's not purely physical, either. It’s really best compared to dancing with a partner. Only instead of Dancing With The Stars, it’s Dancing With The Babies. Here are some key similarities:
Your partner and you both have to learn. You can’t just drag them along.
It takes time to learn. It’s hard at first. You may get injured, but you will likely recover.
There are many different styles. Some styles are easier or come more naturally than others.
Just reading about it, or even looking at pictures, is not enough for you to learn how to do it.
The tricky part, though, is that this physical/emotional dance is not instinctive. We are actually some of the few mammals who do not instinctively know how to breastfeed, and have to learn how. Who else is like this? Large primates! We and gorilla mamas learn by watching other nursing moms, in a biological process called mirroring. It’s true! Read more about this here.
So, just like the gorillas, we need to learn through immersion and practice. We need to nurse, nurse, nurse (hence the importance of a good postpartum plan) and try all different positions, especially ones that are more relaxed, like laid back breastfeeding/biological nurturing. We need to watch other moms nursing — in person is best, but videos are helpful, too. Which brings me to:
3. Watch Breastfeeding in Action
Watching other moms nurse is the gold standard for your breastfeeding education. Ever notice how some families tend to have lots of successful nursing moms among sisters, in-laws, and cousins? I believe it's because they're surrounded by nursing all the time! It’s a relaxed and natural experience — prime for brains to subconsciously pick up on how this whole thing works. (So if you’re one of the mom friends I’ve offered to nurse in front of when you were having breastfeeding problems, now you know why!)
If you don’t have a nursing friend or relative to hang around, the next best thing is to watch breastfeeding videos. In particular, search for “biological nurturing,” “deep latch,” and “laid back” breastfeeding videos on YouTube. (Remember, freestyle boogie is easier than Argentine tango.) Here are some of my favorites:
I don't love breastfeeding "support groups" for several reasons I won't go into here. But if they work for you, great!
4. Line Up a Lactation Consultant, But . . .
I believe that moms are the ultimate experts on breastfeeding.
Seeking advice from your midwife, OB, pediatrician, or a Lactation Consultant can’t hurt, though, right?
Actually, sometimes it can!
Many medical personnel will just tell you what they have been taught, right or wrong. Think critically about what people tell you. Consider the source, their experience & education, and their biases/agenda. (Be aware if someone is following CYA policy — “cover your ass.”)
Breastfeeding is not a medical phenomenon. The ultimate experts will be you & your baby.
Still, line up a good Lactation Consultant if you can. Find a well recommended one, and meet in advance to see if you feel comfortable with her, and have a number to call when things get tough and you need help. (PS: Your health insurance may cover lactation consultant services. I have argued with my insurance over this and won out-of-network coverage. It is always worth a try.) Be prepared to get a second or third opinion if needed. (That said, a bad LC is worse than none at all, in my experience. So be careful.)
If you can get someone to make a house call to you, that’s the best. In Westchester County, NY, I highly recommend Erica Charpentier, IBCLC.