Welcome to our first ever guest post, from Imogen of Alternative Mama.
Breastfeeding. We know that, where possible, it’s the best way to feed a baby. We know that the health benefits, physical and emotional, are second to none. And we also know that it can be flippin’ hard work, especially in the first few weeks of new motherhood.
Unfortunately, when it comes to breastfeeding, we are generally set up for failure from the very beginning. From the moment we start hearing that famous slogan, “Breast is Best”, the pressure is well and truly on to get it right. When we tell our caring family and friends that we want to breastfeed, we are often met with “Don’t get your hopes up”.
And after baby arrives, and it’s time to get down to business, what passes for breastfeeding support in most hospitals is likely the reason for our low breastfeeding rate – surveys carried out in 2005 revealed that although 78% of mothers started out breastfeeding, only 45% were still breastfeeding exclusively by 1 week postpartum. By 6 weeks, just 21% of babies were exclusively breastfed.
Obviously, any amount of breastmilk is beneficial to a baby. All breastfeeding should be applauded and celebrated – whether the mother is breastfeeding exclusively, partially, or pumping. However, there are hundreds of women all over the world who, for various reasons, stopped breastfeeding sooner than they really wanted to. And, as the numbers above show by the shockingly large 57% drop, many of those women found the first 6 weeks to be the hardest.
This really isn’t a surprise. Early motherhood is hard. As a mother who has breastfed two babies, and a breastfeeding peer supporter of 3 years, I’d like to share with you my top tips for surviving the first 6 weeks of breastfeeding your new baby.
1. Never be afraid to ask for help
Yes, the midwives in the hospital are busy. Yes, the local La Leche League Leader may well have lots of other women to help. Yes, your health visitor does have lots of other women to visit. Does that mean that you should forego asking for the support you need? No way!
You and your baby are just as important as anybody else. Even if you’ve had someone check your latch seven times already, if you’re not sure that it’s ok, ask again! Many long-term breastfeeding problems can be avoided entirely with good support early and often, which leads me onto my next point…
2. Get the right kind of help
Unfortunately, breastfeeding support – especially in large, busy hospitals – sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. I have heard so many awful stories of women and babies being manhandled by brusque nurses and midwives, or being left to fend for themselves, or having eyes rolled at their requests for support.
Similarly, some staff and volunteers can be militant about breastfeeding. Neither side is helpful or truly supportive. Some things you need to know:
- A good breastfeeding supporter will never, ever put their hands on you or your baby in order to show you how to breastfeed
- A good breastfeeding supporter will listen to you, and never make you feel like you are inconveniencing them
- A good breastfeeding supporter will never underestimate your desire to breastfeed
- A good breastfeeding supporter will never overestimate your desire to breastfeed
- A good breastfeeding supporter will encourage, support and help you without judging you or pressuring you
Don’t get me wrong; there are hundreds of wonderful, kind, knowledgeable and helpful nurses, midwives and breastfeeding supporters out there. It’s important that you find them, and allow them to help you. Some great places to start are The NCT, La Leche League and local Sure Start Children’s Centres. The NCT and LLL both run 24-hour breastfeeding helplines, so you can find a listening ear at whatever time you need one.
If you haven’t found one yet, find a local breastfeeding support group. Being able to chat with other mums who have been where you are right now, or who are going through it right alongside you, is invaluable.
3. Take it one day at a time
Each day with a new baby brings challenges. Sometimes you will feel as though you have reached the end of your rope. When you throw in the exhaustion, the piles of laundry everywhere, the baby blues and a sore postpartum body… is it any wonder that so many women feel that breastfeeding is too much of a challenge?
The key to getting through those first few weeks is to set yourself small goals. Sure, some people prefer to set a longer goal of 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 12 weeks… but many just need to take it day by day. For the first 8 weeks of my first sons life, I told myself almost daily that I would just breastfeed him for the remainder of that day, and then go buy bottles and formula the very next morning. Eventually, everything clicked into place and we shared a beautiful breastfeeding relationship for 26 months – far longer than I had ever imagined.
4. Big decisions are better left until morning
The decision to stop breastfeeding should be treated like handing in your notice at work. You wouldn’t do it when you are angry and at the very peak of your frustration. With breastfeeding (and mothering a newborn in general), things often look better in the morning. Many mothers put in place a rule for themselves that the decision to stop breastfeeding should only be made in daylight hours – after all, it’s hard to see clearly in the wee hours when you’ve been up for hours with a small person and it feels like you’re the only person in the whole world who’s not sleeping soundly.
5. Remember yourself
In the hustle and bustle of life as a new parent, it is easy to forget about yourself and your needs. All mothers need rest and recuperation, especially breastfeeding mums who have the added physical tax on their body of producing milk to sustain their babies.
Breastfeeding burns 500-700 extra calories every day so make sure you are eating enough. Contrary to popular belief, a perfectly balanced nutritional diet is not generally necessary to produce enough milk.
Everybody is different, and some mothers do experience a supply dip if their diet is lousy, but in most cases it’s not the milk that will suffer – it will be your own health. It is advisable to take a multivitamin (there are a few that are specially made for lactating mothers) in the weeks following the birth, just to help ‘fill in the gaps’ that might be missing from your diet – after all, trying to find the time to cook wholesome meals is pretty close to impossible in the postpartum period.
If you find yourself feeling low, dizzy, tired or shaky after the first week, ask your midwife to arrange an iron level test for you. Anaemia is common following the birth of a baby, and can greatly affect your mood and energy levels.
Aside from the physical side of things, you need to take care of yourself emotionally too. If you find yourself needing some space, do what you can to get it. Even the most boob-loving babies are often content to snuggle in a sling with Daddy, or another caregiver, for a couple of hours giving you a chance to have a bath, go for a solo walk, read a book or pop to a neighbours house for a drink and a natter.
Craving some time away from your baby does not make you a bad mum. Similarly, don’t feel like you *should* have time away from your babe if that’s not what you want.
6. Consider co-sleeping
OK, there’s no point in pretending otherwise– babies feed a lot in the night. In fact, in the first few weeks, they sometimes like to feed all. night. long. This, although exhausting, is completely normal.
Your baby has spent their entire life on the inside, having never felt hunger or the sensation of freeness that they now have. They also have incredibly tiny little tummies, much better suited to frequent snacking than big feeds.
There’s no getting away from the fact that you will be up with your baby a lot during the night, but there are ways to make it much easier. Co-sleeping with your baby will help them to sleep for longer stretches because your presence will be comforting to them. If you can master breastfeeding whilst lying down, then you won’t have to get up at all (save a nappy change or two if your baby poops).
I didn’t co-sleep with our first. After discovering just how much easier night-times are now we co-sleep with our second child, I wish we could go back and do it again. There’s just no need to make life any harder for yourself than it needs to be.
Many people worry that co-sleeping will get the baby ‘used’ to sleeping in the bed with you – I always answer this by gently reminding that actually, the baby is already used to sleeping with you.
Of course, co-sleeping isn’t for everybody, but if the only thing that is putting you off is worries about safety or the forming of habits, please don’t let that put you off. Co-sleeping carries no elevated risk of smothering or cot death, providing that safe sleep guidelines are followed (see also). And as for habits… well, it is no easier or harder to enforce a new routine later on than it is early on – so you might as well do whatever gets you through the tough parts, and worry about the future when the time comes.
The advice you may have been given with regards to your labour and birth – surrender and let it happen – is also a fantastic thing to remember when breastfeeding and mothering a newborn.
For the first couple of months, you will probably spend the vast majority of your day sitting down on the sofa feeding a baby. Some people welcome this change of pace, whereas others – like myself with my first baby – find it very, very difficult.
Having a baby is a massive culture shock, and you may feel as though you have been plunged into chaos. I promise you, this feeling won’t last. The seemingly endless feeds will eventually space out. Soon, your baby will be a strapping young toddler, charging around, and the days you spent chained to the couch will be a hazy memory.
Surrender to your baby. It is normal for them to want to feed a lot. It is normal for them to want to be in your arms all of the time. Many parents find themselves urged to put their babies down instead of holding them – my answer to this is if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If you want to hold your baby, hold them. If your baby wants to nurse, trust them.
Fighting the raw, unscheduled needs of a newborn is a futile exercise that will only end in frustration for both of you. From one mama to another, I urge you to try to surrender to it as best you can. Things really will settle down, I promise. Scheduling your baby’s feeds will almost certainly negatively impact your supply, and will likely drive you crazy, too
All in all, go easy on yourself. Breastfeeding is a learned skill for both mother and baby. You will get the hang of it, and so will they. There’s no point in trying to pretend that breastfeeding is easier in the early days – it’s not. It’s way harder for many people. BUT, you are laying a foundation for much easier months to come.
Imogen O’Reilly is a blogging, writing, tattoo-collecting mother of two young boy-children. She is a trained breastfeeding peer supporter and an aspiring La Leche League Leader from Devon, UK. You can read more from Imogen at her blog, Alternative Mama. You can also follow her on Twitter: @altrnativemama and her Facebook page is at: facebook.com/alternativemama
If you would like to write a guest post for Free Your Parenting, please contact me using the form on this page, and I’ll send you some posting guidelines.