Operation: Breastfeeding

Make sure you’re prepared for the undertaking.

Just minutes after my first prenatal visit, when the ultrasound monitor revealed the little seedling that would soon become my baby, reading became as routine as breathing. I read books, magazines, journals, Web sites… anything that related— even in the slightest way— to pregnancy. But I was so busy trying to absorb every bit of information about fetal development, the stages and symptoms of pregnancy, proper diet, possible complications, the birth process and the benefits of breastfeeding that I neglected to read about how to breastfeed, and the obstacles that often accompany the decision to do so.

Expectant mothers seem to flock to Lamaze class without a second thought, but those who are planning to breastfeed aren’t quite as quick to register for a breastfeeding class, myself included. “Breasts make the milk; the rest is learned,” says Maria Rea, RNC, BSN, IBCLC, of Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, New York.
Yes, I had registered for a breast pump, bought nursing bras and picked out a beautiful glider on which I would peacefully rock back and forth while my baby effortlessly suckled away. But, what I didn’t realize was that these were mere baby steps toward the breastfeeding mission, and I was not fully prepared for what was to come.

Hours after I gave birth to my baby boy, Jake, we had our first try at nursing. The good news was that he learned how to latch on and suckle fairly quickly; oftentimes, newborns take a while to master this skill. The bad news? He kept falling asleep while eating. Therefore, he was hardly eating anything at all.
The nurses later wheeled a breast pump into my hospital room and suggested I pump to stimulate the production of milk. But because of the pain and fatigue I was experiencing, Jake’s demanding feeding schedule, not to mention the endless visitors who kept popping in throughout the day and into the evening, I never seemed to get the chance. I thought to myself, “Jake’s feedings will stimulate my milk production. No big deal if I don’t have time to pump; it’ll be fine.”

But it wasn’t that easy. He continued to fall asleep while eating, so his feedings did not stimulate an adequate milk supply. Yet, like many new moms, I naively continued to view breastfeeding as a natural thing that would come, well, naturally. “It’s just going to take a little time,” I thought to myself.

On my second night in the hospital, the nurses offered to take one of Jake’s feedings so he could actually get some food in his system, and I could get some rest. They finger-fed him formula through a very thin tube. This method more closely resembles breastfeeding as compared to a bottle and helps to prevent oral confusion, which can lead to breastfeeding setbacks.

The next day it was time to go home. However, when I mentioned to the nurse that I still hadn’t been pumping on a regular basis, she was very direct with me. She said, “You really need to make a decision, because you’re falling behind.” Right then, the reality finally hit me. Breastfeeding was not going to be easy, and in many aspects, it was actually unnatural. It was going to take more dedication than I had thought. But, I was not going to give up.

As if I wasn’t having a hard enough time acclimating to nursing duty while also trying to fight off postpartum emotions and body aches, I came home to the rolling eyes of family members. They were there to help and were well-intentioned, but receiving the third degree from relatives about Jake’s eating habits and feeding schedule was not “help.” It was hell!

As Jake was still falling asleep at the breast, his first visit to the pediatrician revealed that he was gaining weight too slowly. I was instructed to up his feedings to every two hours, and make a valiant effort to feed him for at least ten minutes from each breast. In addition, Jake’s pediatrician suggested giving him an extra ounce of breastmilk or formula from a bottle if he failed to stay awake for a whole feeding. This was quite a challenge, but I kept at it. It was an emotional roller coaster. I cried my eyes out during the days leading up to his next weight check. Family members looked at me like I had four breasts when they got wind of the new feeding plan in action. I think they just wanted me to suck it up and go strictly to bottles so they could have a turn feeding him.

Fortunately, Jake and I came out winners. He gained eight ounces within just six days, and caught up with his weight. I did what I set out to do— to give my baby what I saw as the best nutrition I could, and create a special bonding experience with my child that nothing else could offer.

But we didn’t overcome the breastfeeding struggle without a fight. I had to work through tears, guilt, worry and self-doubt. When you decide to breastfeed, it is of utmost importance that you educate yourself on what’s to come, and prepare yourself and others for what may be. And the support of those close to you is vital to your success as a breastfeeding mother. They don’t have to agree with what you’re doing, but you should establish beforehand that if they want to come around when the baby is born, then they have to accept your decision and halt their opinions unless specifically asked to share them.

Rea stresses the importance of prenatal preparation, and offers the following tips:

  • Wait until after baby’s delivery to buy a breast pump, to more easily identify your needs.
  • Take a breastfeeding class from a board-certified lactation consultant. These classes are straightforward about the commitment involved in breastfeeding and help new moms to get started. Classes teach breast familiarization, positioning, feeding cues, breast massage, latch-on and more.
  • Use your resources. Take advantage of the lactation consultants in your hospital and your community.