Six things I’ve learned from six months of breastfeeding
This week marks six months of breastfeeding Ari. In many ways, six months doesn’t seem all that long. But it still amazes me to look at his cheerful, gloriously chubby little face and know that my body has nurtured him for all this time.
As we approach the wonderful messy land of weaning, I’m reflecting on our breastfeeding journey. I thought it would be a good time to share some of what I’ve learned (and what I’m still learning!) in the hopes that it might help some other new or expectant mammas out there.
1. There’s a learning curve. And it can be steep.
It’s one of the most natural things in the world, but that doesn’t mean it will come naturally. Both Ari and I had to learn how to make breastfeeding work, and that can be a tough gig at the start. It felt like the early days of learning photography – you would search online for answers, and find dozens of different methods and approaches but would have to keep trying (and messing up!) until one day it finally clicks (pun unintended 😂).
In the early days, when all he does is feed and all you can do is think about feeding, having encouragement, support and lots of love are key. Ben changed every nappy, fed us breakfast, lunch and dinner, did all the laundry and cleaning and ran every errand for three straight weeks, letting me focus on feeding and getting to know our boy. But the support didn’t stop there. Like many Irish mammas, the advice in the Extended Breastfeeding Ireland Facebook group was invaluable, though more often than not I would turn to my sister – my own personal lactation consultant! – who, after four breastfed kiddos, was a fountain of knowledge and a calm voice in the midst of my worries and panics. I also had a huge amount of support from other mums on WhatsApp and Instagram; having that encouragement, knowing most of what I was going through was a normal part of the process, was huge.
2. You can’t really prepare. But be prepared.
In the last weeks of my pregnancy, I devoured information on breastfeeding. I’d scroll through posts on Facebook groups, looking for newborn stories, trying to anticipate what hurdles might come my way. I read books, blogs and websites dedicated to helping with every imaginable breastfeeding issue. But during my second to last meeting with my doula, I decided to stop reading altogether. It was leaving me stressed and anxious, compiling list of things to buy (nipple shields? healing cups? pillows? pumps?) that I didn’t even know I’d need. The reality was I had no idea what would go right and what would go wrong.
In the end, some of the things I worried about happened (tongue tie, bad latch), some thankfully didn’t (mastitis, blocked ducts) and things I could never imagine happening complete knocked me for six (supply changing with the weather, which led to a sudden oversupply and a forceful letdown that left both Ari and I in frustrated tears several times a day). Things I thought would stress me (cluster feeding, middle-of-the night feeds) didn’t, and things I thought would be easy were hard.
The important thing, I now realise, was to know that no doubt something would come up. And when that happened, to know I’d have the support and tools to help. “For every breastfeeding problem, there’s a breastfeeding solution” is something I heard in the groups a lot, and it gave me comfort, knowing there was always something I could do to help things along.
3. Trust your new mamma gut
Ari was less than 48 hours old, and I was worried about his latch. It looked (to my inexperienced eyes) like he had a case of tongue tie. The obstetrics nurses on the ward told me he looked like he was feeding fine. The paediatrician on duty asked if I had any pain, that would be a sign of a bad latch, he said. But I was a new mum, new to breastfeeding, so there was lots of discomfort – I didn’t know what was ‘normal’ adjustment pain and what wasn’t. Fast forward 24 hours and I’m convinced he’s not latching on properly, stressed at every feed. I’ve watched countless videos on the “asymmetrical latch” – I joked to my doula that I could pass a written exam on it with flying colours, but was pretty sure I’d fail a practical. I remember FaceTiming my mum and sis in floods of tears at some point during all this, feeling so helpless. My wonderful doula arrived the following morning, confirmed a textbook case of tongue tie and, within a day or two, we’re with a brilliant lactation consultant getting hands-on latch tips and Ari’s tongue tie gets fixed by the paediatrician.
Moral of the story: He may be only a few hours old, but you still know your baby better than anyone else. Trust your gut. That and, sadly, there isn’t enough training on breastfeeding issues in maternity hospitals – either here in Portugal or, from what I’ve been told, in Ireland. So you have to educate yourself, as you may not be fortunate enough to get the help you need. (In saying that, I’ve also heard stories of angel midwives that stayed with new mums for hours helping them get up to speed. But it seems like it’s the luck of the draw, which it really shouldn’t be).
4. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work
Sure, there are “perfect” latches and optimal feeding positions. I remember awkwardly trying to get Ari into the “football hold”, convinced it was the key to a deep latch and hassle-free feeding. It wasn’t for us. Maybe it was my boobs, the couch, my technique – but ultimately, if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. And so long as you’re not in pain and baby is getting enough milk, feed in the way that works for you (for us, that was often lying side by side on the bed).
That goes for formula feeding too; lots of friends had to combination feed for various reasons, especially at the start, or switched to formula at some point, and I was genuinely shocked at how much guilt and stress so many of them carried about this. In my particular circle of friends and aquantances, where luckily information on the benefits of breastfeeding is abundant, it seems to have led to a weird sub-culture of formula guilt (I had one mum admit to cropping a bottle out of a shot of her four month old on Instagram, for fear of judgmental DMs). Again, trusting yourself, knowing you’ve done your research and are making the right call for your family and your baby is all that matters.
5. Breastfeeding is far from free
You may not need tubs of formula, multiple bottles and sterilising equipment but there can be a lot of costs involved in feeding, especially at the start. We were lucky we could afford it, but many can’t. For most women I know, it involved some (or all!) of the following: lactation consultants (or a post-natal doula visit), nipple cream, nipple shields or nipple pads, pumps, storage bags, nursing friendly bras or vest, a nursing pillow… the list goes on. As a lot of these costs are front-loaded in the first few weeks; it’s no wonder mums in lower socioeconomic groups are less likely to breastfeed. There simply isn’t enough support out there which, combined with insanely aggressive formula marketing, means lots of new mums give up.
The thing this, a few months in and it does start to feel magically “free”, and it’s so convenient not having to pack lots of extra bits and bobs before heading out the door. It makes me sad and angry that some mothers end up taking a route they didn’t necessarily want to take, simply because the support and information wasn’t available.
6. Time fixes most things
In the early weeks, I’d often FaceTime my pro-level breastfeeding sister and ask her about a weird issue or problem I was having. “Oh yeah, I remember that happening,” she’d say. “How did you fix it?!” I’d desperately ask. And in most cases, she often couldn’t remember. And I’m realising now, that it takes time. Time for you and baby to get used to each other. Time to figure out your own unique systems and hacks, to find your own rhythm.
As an example, our oversupply and forceful let down issues were heart-breaking – your typical, “water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink” scenario. My boobs were full. My boy was hungry. But I couldn’t feed him, as the milk would literally come out too fast and forcefully for him to be able to take it. We tried dozens of fixes, but, if you asked me now, I couldn’t point to one thing. Maybe my supply settled. Maybe as he grew he was better able to handle it. Maybe our latch improved. Probably, it was all these factors and more. It’s at times like these that the popular mantra in breastfeeding circles, “one feed at a time”, can be helpful. It all sounded a bit glib to my frustrated new mamma ears, but just figuring out how to get through one feed, focusing on that moment, not stressing about later (or thinking that this is how it’ll be forever), was what got us through.
I’ll never forget a lovely DM I got when Ari was just a few weeks old: “One day you’ll be sitting there feeding your baby without even thinking about latches or pain or position or any of that technical stuff that feels so overwhelming in the beginning.” And it’s so true.
Above: One of my first times feeding Ari out and about – think he was about a week old 😭.
Thankfully, we’re at a point now where it’s genuinely easy and enjoyable, most of the time. It’s also nice to be out of the feeding 24/7 phase, to pop out for lunch or to the shops and not worry. I’ve fed Ari in parks, supermarkets, restaurants, buses, ferries, planes and more, each time grateful that we’re making it work. There are still days when it feels like he’s glued to the boob, and I feel physically drained after a particularly lengthy feed, and yet I’m still in awe that I’ve been be able to sustain this little chunkster all these months, and hope to continue for a good few more.
All the shots in this post are from our first few weeks together, and were taken by Ben.