Since becoming a mother, I’ve learned that reality often looks different than expectations. Breastfeeding is a great example. New moms often go into it with high expectations (it’s the default, it will be easy, I will love it immediately), but their lack of practical, mental, and emotional preparation sets them up for disappointment.
Sometimes breastfeeding just clicks, for both mom and baby, but not always. Sometimes moms love it, and some love it less than they imagined. Like everything related to motherhood, every woman’s experience is different.
If you’re planning to breastfeed your baby, here are some practical ways to prep, along with some mental/emotional aspects to consider. Even though sometimes the most prepared mothers don’t get the experience they hoped for, these tips will give you the best chance for success, whatever that looks like for you.
Breast pads. In the early stages of breastfeeding, your breasts will most likely produce a lot of milk to keep up with your baby’s need to feed often. This means your breasts may leak. Breast pads, like small, round sanitary pads, fit inside your bra and catch the leakage.
Disposable ones are most popular, but if you’re more environmentally-conscious, you can get washable ones. I used a mix of both, as the disposable ones were convenient for going out, but having reusables helped cut down on costs and trash.
Nursing bras. Having a comfortable, supportive nursing bra can make or break your breastfeeding experience. They often come without underwires or much padding, and they unclip at the strap for easy access.
I found sleep bras to be a major must-have, as they’re less structured and yet still support full, aching breasts. They also hold breast pads in place in case your breasts leak overnight.
Nursing camisoles/undershirts. Retailers sell camis with the same clasps on the straps, like nursing bras. Using these removes the need for buying a lot of breastfeeding tops—you can just wear a nursing cami under your normal shirts. (Unless you’d like a new wardrobe, in which case, these don’t exist.)
When you need to feed, just lift up your regular shirt and then unclasp the cami strap. I found it helpful because I was already self-conscious about getting my breast out; I didn’t feel like baring my stomach, too.
Hot/cold packs. For the first month or so, your breasts will fill so quickly that they can become hard, engorged, and really uncomfortable. I found hot/cold packs to help with lessening pain and discomfort, and to encourage milk let-down (when the milk ducts release milk).
You can also use cabbage leaves kept in the fridge, or press a hot washcloth over your breasts in the shower.
Nipple cream. In the early days of breastfeeding, while you’re still getting used to it, your nipples can become cracked and sore. (I’m not really selling the first few months, am I?) Nipple cream made with lanolin (a waxy substance often used in moisturizers) will help trap moisture and ease the soreness.
You usually apply it after the baby is finished nursing, but as it’s non-toxic, it’s ok if some residual cream is left when the baby feeds again.
Nursing cover. Some moms have no problem feeding in public, and I admire them! I started out self-conscious about it and found that having a good nursing cover enabled me to get out more, which benefited my mental health.
Get a cover with a ring at the top, which makes it easier to see what the baby is doing even when your hands aren’t free.
Breast pump. A breast pump may come in handy if nursing is too difficult or painful, but it might be better to wait and see how it goes. If you do get one, consider your circumstances and plans. Will someone else be watching your baby occasionally? Do you want your partner to help with the night feeds?
Unless you’re going back to work soon after the birth and you plan to pump continuously, you won’t need a fancy double pump strong enough to milk cows!
Bottles/sterilizer. If you do pump, you’ll need a few bottles, a sterilizer, and milk storage bags (to freeze milk). You can also boil bottles on the stove if you’d rather not get a sterilizer, but keep in mind that babies are more susceptible to bacteria than adults, so sterilizing their feeding equipment is important.
Formula—just in case. Although I was certain I wanted to breastfeed my baby, I found that buying a small amount of formula helped put my mind at ease. In case breastfeeding didn’t work out, I preferred to have a backup, not wanting to be left with a screaming baby while my husband dashed out to the store.
Breastfeeding is an amazing process. It releases oxytocin (the love hormone), triggering your milk let-down reflex and strengthening your bond with your baby.
I nursed both of my children, and although I’m glad I did, there are a few things I wish I’d known or considered from the beginning.
Neither of you knows what you’re doing. Nature documentaries about newborn animals aren’t doing us any favors here. Many moms assume that because breastfeeding is natural, a baby will come out knowing how to do it. Sorry, but no. Both you and the baby will have to learn what to do.
That may sound fun (“we’ll learn together!”) but when you’re weak and sore from giving birth, sleep-deprived, and finding nursing uncomfortable or painful, it’s not easy. Nursing a newborn can be so intense that many mothers (understandably) give up on it, especially if it takes a while for the baby to learn.
It can hurt. Breastfeeding experts will tell you that it shouldn’t hurt if the latch is correct. That’s true—but until you get the right latch, it can and probably will hurt, especially since your breasts aren’t used to it. (Enter the nipple cream).
It might not work. Sometimes breastfeeding doesn’t work out, no matter how much you persevere. Here are some of the biggest reasons:
- Babies born with tongue-tie or a cleft lip/palate will struggle to get a good latch
- The mother may have a low milk supply
- Having had a caesarean section
- The baby is premature and needs to be in an incubator
- Your breast milk doesn’t agree with the baby (diet-related)
It can be exhausting. Not to state the obvious, but you’re the only one who can do it. All day, and all night. It’s definitely worth discussing with your partner about how you’ll both handle the night feeds.
For example, although my husband couldn’t help with feeding the baby, he’d often change diapers or burp the baby after a feed. (He’d probably been hoping to sleep through the wake-ups, but the screaming baby dashed those hopes.)
The broken sleep isn’t the only tiring thing about it. Newborns feed constantly, which means you can’t be away from the baby for more than 2 to 3 hours. If you have family and friends around to help, count yourself blessed. Maybe you decide to pump so others can help out.
But be aware that even pumping can take a while, and combined with how often newborns feed, you’re often moving from nursing to pumping without much time in between.
There is no right or wrong. Everyone has an opinion about how best to feed babies. Whether you choose to breastfeed, to use formula, or both, I guarantee there will be someone telling you why you should do it differently.
Well, guess what? There is no right or wrong with this. Motherhood is hard enough without mothers casting judgment on each other about feeding choices. Moms are doing the best they can for their families, in their circumstances.
If breastfeeding takes too much of a toll on your marriage, family, or mental or physical health, then it’s ok to stop. You haven’t failed as a mother. The most important thing is that your baby gets fed. It doesn’t matter how.
The reality of breastfeeding, like motherhood in general, often looks different from expectations. I hope this article has given you a fuller picture of what to expect and what might make it easier.
Whether everything clicks for you, or your nursing journey involves a struggle, you can pat yourself on the back. Your round-the-clock care of a tiny human is a feat in itself.