Breastfeeding should be intuitive, right? It’s the way all mammals feed their little ones. And for some people, it is. Like my Granny told me before Theo was born, “You just put that baby up there, and he’ll be fine.” Or like my doula told me about when she had her first child, “I didn’t know what I was doing, but luckily my baby knew just what to do.” But, breastfeeding is not always easy.
When Theo was born, the nurse helped him to latch right away, and we practiced at it for the time we were in the hospital. For the most part, he was pretty sleepy and a little lazy at eating, and I couldn’t tell if he was latching well or not. The nurse asked me, “Does it feel like pinching or pulling?”
Gosh, I don’t know. It felt pinchy, but that’s only because now I know the difference. At the time, I thought maybe that’s just what breastfeeding feels like. It didn’t really hurt, but just felt uncomfortable. Now I know that a little bit of hurting can lead to a lot of hurting in a short amount of time, and I ended up with sore and cracked nipples by the time we got home from the hospital.
Luckily, I had heard enough stories of breastfeeding challenges that I really wanted to see a lactation consultant for help. We have a center here in Bellingham with lactation consultants who do home visits. Janet came to visit us our first day home from the hospital, which happened to be a Saturday. Janet spent two hours with us that afternoon, and she was a God-send. I think if we had waited until Monday (to see the hospital lactation consultants), our breastfeeding outcome could have been very different and we might have needed to supplement with formula.
Instead, Janet immediately helped make subtle corrections in Theo’s latch and how I was holding him, which made a huge and immediate difference. Because Theo lost more than 10% of his birth weight within the first few days, my doctor wanted me to supplement with formula. I really wanted to exclusively breastfeed, so Janet suggested that I start pumping and supplement each breastfeeding session with an ounce or two of pumped milk.
We arranged to get a breast pump, which came the next day. And for the next few weeks, my days and nights were consumed with breastfeeding and pumping. I would breastfeed Theo and then Elie would hold him while I pumped, and then we would feed him the pumped milk. At that time, I was only getting an ounce or two of pumped milk after each breastfeeding session. That cycle would continue all day long, and I even pumped in the middle of the night, when my milk supply was highest.
I was committed and determined. Between what I fed Theo during breastfeeding and what I was able to pump and feed him, it was just exactly enough. There was no extra. It was almost as if my body knew exactly how much he needed. And he started gaining weight.
Because I didn’t have an adequate milk supply at the beginning, I also started on a lactation support supplement, containing fenugreek and other herbs. Within three days of taking the supplement (two pills, three times a day), I saw an immediate increase in milk supply. Since it was easier for Theo to get the milk out, that made him a more vigorous and interested eater. And from there, things just got better and better.
It took about three or four weeks to really get into a good breastfeeding rhythm, but we made it. We never had to supplement with formula, and after about five weeks, I didn’t have to give Theo supplemental bottles of breastmilk after breastfeeding. Now, I just pump to provide extra milk for when I go to yoga, or when Elie and I have a date night.
Those first few weeks were stressful. Even though I know better, I felt like a bad Mom because I couldn’t feed my child. When he started losing weight–and was obviously hungry all the time–I felt helpless. I feel grateful that we got the help we needed right away, because otherwise the outcome might have been very different. I was determined not to feed Theo formula and to exclusively breastfeed, so I worked really hard to make sure he gained back his weight. Today, at seven weeks old, he’s topping 13 pounds! We’re obviously not having any problems with breastfeeding now.
For new mamas who are getting ready to have their first child, and who want to exclusively breastfeed, I have a few thoughts that might help.
- Don’t be afraid of breastfeeding. For many people, breastfeeding comes easily and they don’t have any problems. But if it doesn’t feel right–if it hurts at all–ask for help immediately. Correcting the latch or hold can prevent a lot of pain and potentially help you from giving up breastfeeding. And if one lactation consultant doesn’t help you (or makes you feel bad about asking for help) then try another one. Just like with any learning experience, sometimes we connect with one teacher more than another.
- For the first few weeks, you will be breastfeeding all the time. I significantly underestimated the amount of time devoted to breastfeeding, especially during those first few weeks. There may be some days when you don’t leave your bed all day. Ask family or friends for help, someone to bring you food, coffee, water and snacks.
- For me, the home visits from a lactation consultant were a lifesaver. Janet ended up coming to our house three times, and then we went to her office once. These visits helped us to check in, continue to make small adjustments, and be reassured that Theo was gaining the weight he needed. In our community, these home visits are offered from The Center for Healthy Motherhood and are covered by insurance. Check to see if there is a similar service in your local community.
- Taking the lactation support herbal supplement helped increase my milk supply (fenugreek is the main ingredient). Take two capsules, three times a day (a higher dose than the directions on the bottle). When I first started pumping, I could only get an ounce or two of milk at a time. Now, I can get anywhere from three to seven ounces in one session.
- There are other galactagogues (foods and supplements that increase milk supply) that you can also take, including milk thistle tea, oatmeal, flaxseed, almonds, cashews and brewer’s yeast. These aren’t as effective as the fenugreek, so be sure and start with the supplement. You may have heard of ‘lactation cookies,’ which are basically oatmeal cookies made with flaxseed and brewer’s yeast. I’m going to share a recipe for these soon. They are delicious, and also make for a great one-handed snack as you settle in for those long hours of nursing.
- Don’t lose too much weight too fast. I have a feeling that one of the reasons I didn’t have a great milk supply at the beginning was that I lost too much weight in the first two weeks. When we first brought Theo home, neither Elie nor I were eating very much because we were too busy focused on taking care of our son. To maintain a good milk supply, you need to nourish your body and drink enough liquids.
- Be nice to yourself. I found breastfeeding really challenging at first, and I was really hard on myself because I wasn’t producing enough milk, because I couldn’t get Theo to latch well, because my son wasn’t gaining weight. I felt like I wasn’t taking care of him, and perhaps I had hurt him by not giving him enough nutrition in those first few weeks. Now, I love breastfeeding and I cherish that special time with my son. He’s growing and flourishing and nursing is easy. If you think you can’t get there, you can.
If you have any other questions or need support, please reach out. I’m so, so happy that I stuck with breastfeeding and didn’t give up or give in*.
*That was the right decision for me, but I know other people who really struggled with breastfeeding and ended up transitioning to formula. There is no shame in making that choice either. Sometimes formula is the most loving choice a mother can make for herself and her child.