The author and her son. Photo by Mickey Sanderson.
As soon as found out I was pregnant, I started researching the best tactics for parenting, including breastfeeding. I started attending La Leche League meetings before my bump was even visible. I learned about latching and holds.
I checked out books on breastfeeding from the library, and went to every community breastfeeding event I could find. I was convinced that with the right mindset and a ton of determination, it would all turn out fine.
But all that prep went out the window when my son was diagnosed with hydronephrosis in utero. The books couldn't prepare me for an unplanned induction or a stay in the NICU. At nearly a month postpartum, I required an emergency surgery for complications, and my son still hadn't latched for the first time, possibly due to "nipple confusion" after bottle-feeding. Lost and discouraged, I kept wondering what I did wrong.
Then one day, out of nowhere, my son finally figured it out. There was no magic - he just decided to do it, and I ended up breastfeeding him for about a year and eight months. Things worked out for us, but I wish someone would have told me how hard it might be at the beginning.
Nipple pain, soreness, latch problems - there are so many struggles that come with breastfeeding, but where's the discussion surrounding them? For mums who choose to breastfeed, it's important to be informed about the challenges, all of which are normal.
Here are some ways to be better prepared:
Every mother and baby combo is different. Some women may enjoy a challenge-free nursing experience - others, like myself, will face setbacks.
There are some things you can't prepare for in advance: latch form, anatomy issues on Mum or baby, and mental health challenges. Thankfully, most of these things can be worked through with a dedicated lactation consultant or birth professional such as a doula, OB/GYN, or midwife. When you begin your journey knowing that there are challenges that all fall within the realm of normal, you won't be as easily discouraged.
Consider setting incremental deadlines, such as "If we are still struggling in two weeks, we'll seek professional help." Most importantly, know when to take a break. If your mental and physical health are being affected by your struggle to breastfeed, then take some time off. If your week or two without breastfeeding makes you feel like a better parent, you might want to consider switching to formula.
Establish a Support Network
The first few weeks of breastfeeding are physically and emotionally draining. But as with most things, it usually gets more comfortable with time. One of the best predictors of breastfeeding success is having a support network.
Do you have a close friend who is well-versed in the ups and downs of the early stages of breastfeeding? Tell her you may be calling her for help. Is there an online support group that brings comfort to breastfeeding mums? Join it. Ask for recommendations for local lactation consultants or check the International Lactation Consultant Association directory. Develop your network ahead of time because when the baby comes, you may be too overwhelmed.
Of course, your partner can also step up and help if you provide them with information on how to do so. My husband hadn't attended the breastfeeding classes with me, so if I wanted his support, I knew I had to give him a crash course on how to fill in the gaps.
Have Someone Advocate for You
A close friend of mine recently gave birth to twins and was determined to breastfeed. While she was motivated and informed, the doubt shown by the birth professionals discouraged her. They didn't believe she was likely to breastfeed one baby successfully, due to her age and her race, let alone twins. That experience affected her belief in herself.
The support you receive in the hospital can make or break your nursing journey. When shopping around for a healthcare provider, select a doctor or support person like a doula who will advocate for you. Here are some questions you can ask a potential advocate:
- How will you advocate for me when I am unable to?
- Do you know all of my preferences?
- Do you have the time to commit to supporting me?
Research indicates people of colour and members of the LGBTQ community face unique obstacles when it comes to birth care as a result of biases and preconceptions. For that reason, it's important for members of marginalized groups to make sure the person they hire understands their identity and knows how that can affect their birth experience.
Be Gentle on Yourself
Parenthood is a tough transition, and we all decide how we want to do what's best for our children. Like many choices, the decision to breastfeed isn't easy, but many parents have found it to be worth it. I chose to keep breastfeeding, even when things looked bleak, because it worked for my family.
Every mother has different obstacles to overcome - for some it's physical, for others economic. It's important to know that deciding not to breastfeed doesn't make you any less of a parent.
As long as you are trying and progressing accordingly with your children's best interest in mind, everything really will be fine.