I am Danya, mother of 4 girls. The choice to breastfeed was obvious to me. Fortunately, my mom breastfed all three of her babies in a time and place when breastfeeding wasn’t encouraged, so I had that influence. Also, living on the Central Coast made it easier for me since this is a breastfeeding-friendly environment, for the most part. Admittedly, I felt a little bit “icky” about it…the thought that I might feel a bit like a cow. But, in the same way that I was excited to experience natural childbirth because I wanted to see firsthand what my body had been designed to do, I wanted the experience of feeding my babies the way nature intended for them to be fed. I am really proud and happy that I did (despite the fact that, after nursing 4 babies, I went from a 32 B down to a “Seriously, my 8 year old has more than me!?!” haha!).
Prior to my first baby’s birth (at age 29), I attended several breastfeeding clinics. While there was contrasting information between all of them, the consistent part and the strongest message were how to get the latch right and how important it was to get it right immediately so as to avoid painful cracked nipples (not appealing! . For this reason, I do recommend going into your first birth well prepared.
I also hired a very, very experienced doula, so I knew I would be in good hands to get through the natural birth and to get a good start on the breastfeeding. Sometimes the hospital lactation consultant doesn’t get to you until the next day if you have the baby in the night. Latching takes practice and experienced help. It is not intuitive at the beginning. It will help if you have that support right away after birth.
The first month or so was pretty rocky for almost every mom I know, including me, so be prepared for this! Don’t expect it to be smooth sailing and then you won’t freak out when you are having issues (and we ALL do!). Hang in there and take comfort in knowing you are not alone…it is not easy for anyone at first, but stick with it and it will pay off and become so much easier with each passing month.
Remember, every birth, every baby, and every mom is different. Ask for help, but also, and more importantly, listen to your own instincts as well. Be careful not to read so much that you forget to listen to your own common sense. Sometimes the advice you get is great for 90% of the moms out there, but you may be the one exception whose body just works differently. This was the case for me. I brought home my first baby thinking I was well prepared from my breastfeeding clinics and happy that my baby was latching, but actually some of what I read and was told was all wrong for me. She would nurse for 5 minutes (total for both sides!), and then promptly fall asleep. She was DONE. The books and consultants were telling me I should wake her up and stimulate her to try to get her to feed longer or there could be a vicious cycle (the lack of calories would mean she wouldn’t have the energy to nurse properly and then she would begin to lose weight). Turns out, she was just a really efficient nurser! She, like all my babies, started to grow by leaps and bounds within a week or two of birth and continued to make tons of wet diapers, so I really didn’t need to freak out about the nursing. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until I was a month out, so my husband and I went through a lot of unnecessary stress from being too focused on what others were telling us.
The other thing I wasn’t prepared for was the incredibly painful engorgement when my milk came in. It was as bad as labor in a way and went on a LOT longer. The advice I received was not to pump it off because of the “supply/demand” effect. So, I used ice packs and ibuprofen and just suffered (A LOT!) and lost a lot of sleep- even had trouble enjoying my new baby because of my extreme discomfort. It took a couple of months to settle down. With our second baby, I ignored all the advice and pumped every time I felt uncomfortable (which was a lot in the beginning). The engorgement didn’t take any longer to go away, despite my constant pumping, and I was thrilled to have all the extra breast milk in my freezer. In fact, my 2 year old was going through chemo for leukemia at the time, and she enjoyed a bottle of my extra breast milk every day for a year (which I believe got her through her chemo with a record low number of hospital visits due to the extra antibodies).
Ironically, I was able to get my babies to sleep through the night very quickly (within 2 weeks for the latter three), but due to my painful engorgement, it took ME a couple of months to sleep through the night!
The engorgement issue was a problem with all 4 babies, but seemed to settle down a bit faster with each one, thankfully. That said, I also experienced another uncommon discomfort: painful letdown. I don’t recall having this problem until my 4th baby. I am still not sure why, but during the letdown, it would feel like I literally had a needle in my breast. It would make me gasp! Luckily, the pain only lasted for 30 seconds or so. It became less intense with each passing month and went away completely about 4 months out.
On the flip side, I tended to struggle a bit with keeping my supply going once my babies began having solids and nursing less often. If you think this could be an issue for you, and you want to ensure that you keep your supply strong (after 6 months when your baby is eating solids), I recommend continuing to nurse often, or pump. With my latter 3 babies, I would get in a pattern of nursing before each meal and at least one other time (post nap). That seemed to work for me. In contrast, with my first baby, I cut more feedings and my letdown got slower and more frustrating as a result.
As for pumping, I learned that, for my body, I had to establish a regular time in order for the pumping to be productive. With my first baby, I didn’t pump because I was told it would make my engorgement worse (supply/demand). When I did try to pump a month or more out, I would work at it for 20 minutes and be lucky to come away with an ounce or two. With my other 3 babies, I ignored this advice, and began pumping whenever I was uncomfortable AND as soon as I woke up (before nursing the baby). I continued to pump every morning for a year, long after the engorgement went away. With this method, I had no problem getting a good 8 ounces or so in 10 minutes of pumping. It was nice to have the extra milk in a deep freezer so I could give it to my babies long after I stopped nursing.
One other issue that came up for me -- which is more uncommon, but which I would like to share in case it happens to anyone else -- is that I experienced extreme dry eyes with my third and fourth babies. It kicked in around 4-5 months into nursing (when the babies were larger and therefore taking more milk). This was about the period of time during nursing that my hair would get thinner (handfuls started falling out….but don’t worry….it came back! and I would lose weight and be able to eat anything I wanted for a while (definitely a nice side effect that makes up for the hair! . My eyes were a problem, though. I went under the care of a cornea specialist who put plugs in the ducts where my tears drain, and I had to start taking special drops for my eyes and drink more water. It was uncomfortable and my sight suffered a bit, but I managed the problem and made it to a year of nursing each time (my goal). My eyes did feel better and became stable again when I stopped nursing.
Finally, I would like to add that if you can possibly keep your birth natural…try! Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t (I am not going to lie…that was some seriously intense pain each and every time!), but anecdotally I had my 4 daughters naturally and they were born bright-eyed and bushy tailed. They latched on immediately at birth, within a minute of being handed to me, and we didn’t look back from there!
We all know that the health benefits of nursing for both mother and baby are well worth the effort, however challenging it can be at times. The feeling of pride you have when you manage to sustain your baby naturally, and the precious closeness you gain from the experience of breastfeeding, are indescribable. Breastfeeding, combined with the unique and amazing feeling of having a baby grow and move inside of us, are what make being a woman the greatest gift on earth!