During my first pregnancy, my intent to breastfeed was a common conversation topic, and advice was readily offered. Stories painted breastfeeding as everything from an idyllic bonding experience for mother and baby (cue background music) to horrific medieval torture. While much of this advice was welcome, I assumed that since breastfeeding was the “natural” way to feed a baby, I would somehow instinctively know what to do. After all, mothers had been feeding their newborns for millions of years—how could something so natural be so hard?
After an uneventful pregnancy and birth, I had a rude awakening—breastfeeding wasn’t “natural” for me. After many trials and tribulations, I went on to exclusively pump, and provided breast milk until my child was nearly two. This is now one of my highest personal accomplishments, eventually resulting in my current career in lactation.
Many parents encounter similar difficulties that undermine their breastfeeding experience. The CDC reports that in 2017 85.9% of new Texas mothers attempted breastfeeding, but less than 23.9% reached the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months.
Expectant parents often ask me what they need to successfully breastfeed. My best answer is not a long list of instructions or supplies, but short list of simple suggestions:
Don’t rely on strictly book knowledge or online resources.
Before conceiving my first child, I spent hours online and reading books about pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. I had never actually seen anyone breastfeed, but I had played with dolls as a child, and I believed that I would instinctively know how to hold, feed and care for a baby. I was a smart, savvy woman with a successful career, how hard could this really be? I now understand that the real knowledge of how to breastfeed and care for a newborn is not just gained from reading a book but is learned by doing it and seeing other mothers breastfeed.
Just like learning to ride a bike, you can’t learn how to breastfeed by reading a book. You have to get your butt up on the seat and start pedaling.
Build your breastfeeding support network
Making connections with other breastfeeding mothers is essential to establish a lifeline of support for your early postpartum period. It is also important to talk to your partner about how to give you support while breastfeeding.
While there is a deep instinctual knowledge that we can call upon, many new parents struggle with the practical application of this knowledge. In most cultures, new parents learn these essential skills from other experienced parents. Many of our own parents did not breastfeed – resulting in a generational gap in breastfeeding know-how. Add geographic separation, common in many extended families, and overall new mothers are often isolated in our society. It is helpful for new parents to connect with experienced parents in the local community. Support groups, La Leche League groups, and IBCLC Lactation Consultants are all good resources.
A prenatal consultation with an IBCLC Lactation Consultant is a great way to start building your support network.
Support is the biggest predictor of success.
Know who to trust
Your specific situation should be assessed with care and compassion by someone with training in lactation.
During my breastfeeding difficulties, it seemed that everyone told me something different. Even trusted medical advisors often did not give the same advice, so it was difficult to decide who was right.
Now I know that lactation, from a medical perspective, is not held in the same regard as other areas of medicine. In fact, some hospitals and medical facilities do not require any lactation training for their staff. As a new parent, it is your right to expect adequate lactation support and your responsibility to question any advice that seems inappropriate for you and your child.
It is also important to understand the difference between an IBCLC Lactation Consultant and the other “lactation specialists” in the community. IBCLC Lactation Consultants are required to have at least 90 hours of lactation specific training, must have completed specific college prerequisites, and have completed hundreds or thousands of clinical hours before even being allowed to sit for the board exam for Lactation Consultants. The IBCLC certification is the gold standard in lactation. By contrast a CLC (Certified Lactation Counselor) or Breastfeeding Educator is only required to take a one-week course on lactation. For more information, read this great article on www.secondninemonths.com.
International Board Certified Lactation Consultants have the more training and education in the field of lactation and infant feeding than any other medical provider.
Know when to ask for help
Breastfeeding should be a positive experience for both parent and baby on many levels. When nursing, endorphins released in both parent and child results in an improved bonding experience.
Breastfeeding should not be stressful, painful or torturous. But unexpected problems can sometimes arise, such as when the baby’s latch changes as the milk comes in. Pain is the body’s indicator that something is wrong and is the most common reason for early weaning.
While many latch problems self-resolve by about 6 weeks, no parent should be expected to endure weeks of discomfort. Nipple pain can sometimes be corrected with simple instruction on correct positioning and latch, other times there may be an issue such as a lip or tongue tie causing the difficulty, but it takes an experienced eye to see what’s not right.
New parents often are concerned about how much milk their baby is getting when nursing. Milk supply issues (real or perceived) are the second most common reason for early weaning, and Lactation Consultants can be very helpful in those situations.
If you are having concerns or difficulties with breastfeeding, don’t hesitate to ask for help and see a lactation consultant, and your insurance may even cover the services for you.
Pain while breastfeeding is COMMON but not NORMAL.
If you are having pain, you should ask for help.